A new Pentagon forecast showing the total cost of owning and operating a fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters topping $1 trillion over more than 50 years has caused a case of sticker shock in Washington.
And that price tag doesn’t even include the $385 billion the Defense Department will spend to purchase 2,500 of the stealthy planes through 2035.
During a Senate hearing this month, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) called the $1 trillion figure “jaw-dropping,” particularly when compared with the costs of operating other aircraft.
“I appreciate this estimate is still early and subject to change, but we need to know that the program is going to bring that number down,” he said.
Tom Burbage, who leads the program for manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp., acknowledged that the ‘t’ word “causes a lot of the sensational reaction to it, because no one’s ever dealt with ‘t’s before in a program.”
The long-range estimate is, by its nature, imprecise because it attempts to forecast factors including inflation and fuel costs decades into the future. And the Pentagon says it will be adjusted as the planes enter operation.
But the figure is bringing new scrutiny to what is already the Pentagon’s largest-ever weapon-buying project as its budget comes under pressure. Already, Lockheed Martin has said it was looking for ways to bring down the long-term cost.
Christine Fox, head of the Pentagon’s cost-assessment office, said in Senate testimony that the F-35 would likely cost about 33% more per flight hour to operate than two of the aircraft it will replace, the F-16 and F-18. But the new aircraft will be much more sophisticated, will be far less visible to enemy radar and will have sensors that allow a single jet to take on missions that now require several aircraft.
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