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GAO: Poor planning, sustainment problems driving F-35 costs

GAO: Poor planning, sustainment problems driving F-35 costs
The active-duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings conducted an F-35A Combat Power Exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, in January 2020. Photo by R. Nial Bradshaw/U.S. Air Force | License Photo

April 22 (UPI) -- The Pentagon should develop a plan to ensure it can afford to sustain the future F-35 fleet, said a Government Accountability Office report release Thursday.

According to the report, the Defense Department plans to acquire nearly 2,500 F-35 aircraft for a cost of $400 billion, but the costs of sustainment are far higher -- and have climbed steadily upward over the last decade.

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Estimated sustainment costs for the jet over its 66-year service life have increased steadily, from $1.11 trillion to $1.27 trillion since 2012, according to the GAO.

The Air Force will need to reduce estimated annual per-plane costs by $3.7 million -- or 47% -- by 2036, or costs will be $4.4 billion more than it can afford.

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The cost per aircraft per year would total $6 billion in 2036 alone, the GAO said -- meaning the services "will collectively be confronted with tens of billions of dollars in sustainment costs that they project as unaffordable during the program."

The report recommended Congress should consider requiring the Defense Department to report annually on its effort to contain costs for the fighter jet -- making F-35 aircraft procurement decisions contingent on the department's progress in containing costs.

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The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole combat aircraft, and currently regarded as the world's superior fighter plane -- but the F-35 program has also come under fire for operating problems and spiraling costs.

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A May 2020 report said the cost per plane is falling, but other recent projections show ancillary costs -- like sustainment and modernization -- spiraling upward.

Last month the GAO released a report saying a Pentagon project to continuously modernize the F-35 jet has seen about $2 billion in cost growth since 2019.

The jet's problems have left a bad taste in the mouth of some lawmakers, who on Thursday vowed to fight efforts to hasten the production of F-35s in next year's defense budget due to surging costs.

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One major problem, USNI reported, is the engines: while Pratt & Whitney maintains that the F135 engines have achieved a 95% availability rate, which is above the program's requirement, there's a shortage of spare engine parts and a lengthy work backlog at the program's maintenance depot.

"The program's over budget. It fails to deliver on promised capabilities and its mission-capability rates do not even begin to meet the services' thresholds," said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's readiness subpanel, during a Thursday hearing reported by Stars & Stripes. "Don't expect more money. Do not expect to have more planes purchased than are in the president's [fiscal year 2022] budget. That's not going to happen."

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Since 2015, Congress has ordered 98 more F-35s than the Pentagon has requested, even as parts shortages have hampered production -- but Garamendi said any lawmakers who suggested such purchases this year would be in for "a hell of a fight."

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