Air Force risks losing third of F-35s if upkeep costs aren’t cut

An F-35 jet arrives at its new operational base at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
An F-35 jet arrives at its new operational base at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

The Air Force may have to cut its purchases of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 by a third if it can’t find ways to reduce operations and support costs by as much as 38% over a decade, according to an internal analysis.

The shortfall would force the service to subtract 590 of the fighter jets from the 1,763 it plans to order, the Air Force office charged with evaluating the F-35’s impact on operations and budgets said in an assessment obtained by Bloomberg News.

Though the Defense Department has said it has gained control over costs for developing and producing a fleet of 2,456 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — now projected at $406 billion — the internal analysis underscores the current and looming challenges of maintaining and operating the warplanes.

It may cost as much as $1.1 trillion to keep the F-35s flying and maintained through 2070, according to the current estimate from the Pentagon’s independent cost unit.


A chart in the Air Force analysis, which was completed in December, said the service has “very limited visibility into how” increasing funds going to Lockheed for “contractor support” are spent.

The analysis represents the first public disclosure of the potential effect if support costs aren’t reduced. Using figures developed in 2012, the Air Force faces an annual bill of about $3.8 billion a year that must be cut back over the coming decade.

The Air Force analysis doesn’t represent anything close to a final decision, according to spokeswoman Ann Stefanik. The potential reduction in aircraft was a “staff assessment on aircraft affordability. It’s premature for the Air Force to consider buying fewer aircraft at this time,” Stefanik said.

The Air Force is working with the Pentagon’s F-35 program office to reach the 38% reduction in operation and support costs through 2028 from the $38 billion calculated in 2012, she added.

The long-term support concerns are on top of current F-35 challenges including parts shortages, unavailable aircraft and technical issues that must be resolved as the program ends its 17-year development phase. In September, the F-35 is to begin as much as a year of rigorous combat testing that’s required by law. Successful testing would trigger full-rate production, the most profitable phase for Lockheed, as soon as late 2019.

The F-35 program is accelerating: Congress bankrolled 90 jets, or 20 more than requested, in the spending bill for the current fiscal year.

Half of the operations and support expenditures are tied to Lockheed’s costs and include “program management, depot maintenance, part repair, software maintenance, engineering,” Stefanik said. Those costs “are growing with the increase in flight hours.” The remaining costs are managed by the Air Force, including military personnel and fuel, she said.

The Government Accountability Office said in an October report that “there is little doubt” the F-35 “brings unique capabilities to the American military, but without revising sustainment plans” the military “is at risk of being unable to leverage the capabilities of the aircraft it has recently purchased.”