By: Dan Grazier for POGO, Nov. 1, 2019
Pentagon leaders are likely reveling in the news that they have negotiated an agreement with Lockheed Martin that they claim drives down the unit cost of the F-35 joint strike fighter to below $80 million in the next few years. While any reduction in costs for the most expensive weapons program in history is an improvement, all is not as it appears in the industry trade press. A quick perusal of publicly available Pentagon budget documents shows the real cost of the F-35 to be above $100 million per copy for the fiscal year 2020 buy. Given the work that remains, and the way the Pentagon has surrendered many key responsibilities to the manufacturer, the price is likely to be at least that amount or higher for the foreseeable future.
The most commonly mentioned figure is for the F-35A, the Air Force’s conventional takeoff variant and the least expensive model. The current estimate for the lot of aircraft currently in production is $89.2 million apiece. This figure is the unit recurring flyaway cost—the price tag for just the aircraft and engine, which by themselves do not make a fully functioning weapon system. That $89.2 million does not include procurement funds spent on initial spare parts, flight training simulators, the expensive – and poorly performing – ALIS support system, and more, all unique to the F-35. You need all of it, not just an air frame and engine – literally not including the cost of fuel to fly it. When we also consider the future modifications necessary to correct both the known and potential design flaws and the aircraft’s $44,000 per-flight-hour cost, it is easy to see why the F-35 program is the most expensive in history.
A handy tool for anyone interested in knowing more about actual costs of military programs and weapons is readily available online. The Pentagon posts budget materials for each fiscal year on the comptroller’s webpage. Included are budget estimates and the justification documents containing more charts and figures than any reasonable person would care to view.
The Air Force’s fiscal year 2020 budget pays for the 48 F-35As in Lot 11. The current $89.2 million dollar price the Pentagon uses is calculated by separating out just the costs for the airframe and the engine from the larger total procurement cost that includes ALIS, simulators, initial spare parts, and more to get to the artificially low $89.2 million. That is far from the whole story.
The Pentagon’s own budget documents list the FY 2020 procurement cost for those 48 aircraft as more than $101 million, nearly $12 million more than the figure rolled out for press reports. Using the Navy’s charts and the same math shows that the real costs for each F-35C is more than $123 million, while each F-35B costs in excess of $166 million. But even that figure doesn’t tell the whole story.