F-35, The Cost Of An International Attack/Fighter Aircraft


Development of Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is not progressing smoothly. The F-35 “is Department of Defense’s (DOD) most complex and ambitious aircraft acquisition,” according to a recent GAO report, “seeking to simultaneously produce and field three aircraft variants for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and eight international partners.” Some sources also label the JSF, which will have short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variants, as the most expensive program in the Pentagon’s arsenal. The GAO prices the program at a total investment including fleet acquisition and lifetime maintenance “now approaching $1 trillion.” As such, a troubled U.S. economy, huge budget deficit and development delays may now complicate matters for an aircraft also labeled as “critical to our nation’s plans for recapitalizing tactical aircraft” and intended to see 2,458 examples in production. Recently, the first F-35 was grounded by nacelle vent fan failure (translation: the engine bay could overheat, causing structural damage) and engine tests for the STOVL “B” variant have now been delayed until next year after the test aircraft is re-engined. In the role of providing quick development to keep costs down and fend off the lure of competing designs ultimately allowing for mass production, the aircraft is not doing well — total acquisition cost estimates increased by $23 billion from March 2007 to March 2008. Fortunately, the aircraft’s intended role is mainly ground attack.

The F-35 is not fast or agile enough to dogfight with an advanced adversary and is not capable of carrying arms to provide long-range kills against said adversary without compromising stealth. Still, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) nonetheless seeks to retain the advantage of being inexpensive. Last month Lockheed announced the U.S. Department of Defense has released $1 billion in funding “to acquire six F-35B aircraft” as part of the second initial production contract for the F-35. Production aircraft have recently targeted the $60 million dollar range — a price perhaps quoted in 2002 dollars and one that Lockheed may be forced to fix ahead of production to secure orders otherwise lost to competitors. The JSF development contract was signed in November of 1996. The contract for development of a demonstration aircraft was awarded in late 2001.