When it comes to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the sticker shock never seems to end.
On March 29, the U.S. Defense Department disclosed to Congress the JSF program will cost $1.51 trillion over 55 years. That’s 9 percent, or $124.2 billion more, than last year’s estimate.
If such high numbers seem abstract, a recent DoD select acquisition report does not: Beginning in 2018 — just beyond DoD’s latest future years defense plan — annual F-35 purchases vault to 50 of the stealth planes for the Navy and Marine Corps, while annual Air Force purchases climb from 60 jets a year to 80 by 2021.
Buying so many JSFs each year means intense competition for funding with other looming priorities and commitments, from new warships to aerial tankers, long-range bombers, helicopters and satellites.
That said, the program remains critical to modernizing the aging U.S. and allied fighter forces. Too much has been invested to pull the plug, yet cutting numbers makes the planes you buy even more expensive, putting the program in a Catch-22 situation.
At this point, DoD and prime contractor Lockheed Martin must be honest about program costs while making smarter decisions to keep it from unraveling. Indeed, rising costs are alarming partners and customers. Canada last week capped F-35 funding after officials accused the country’s Defence Department of low-balling costs to skirt government scrutiny. Japan — which chose JSF late last year as its new fighter — has said rising costs may force it to drop out.
Nations all over the world are cutting back on defense spending, so in austere financial times, it’s natural that politicians turn on what is for many nations their priciest military program.
DoD and Lockheed deserve credit for trying to project honest total costs. Since its start, JSF cost estimates have been unique for including everything from engines to maintenance computers, items not included in the costs of other combat aircraft.
However, most of the $1.51 trillion life-cycle figure is unreliable and misleading, given we don’t know what jet fuel will cost two months from now, let alone decades in the future. Many other uncontrollable variables go into these calculations, which boil down to best guesses. Indeed, critics charge that DoD overestimated costs to protect itself from political heat.
But such cost estimates, while troubling to the U.S., can be flat-out terrifying to nations that work on a smaller scale. And if even one partner or customer scales back an order or drops out of the program, it will drive up costs even more for everyone else.
To save JSF, two things must happen.
First, the Pentagon must recognize it’s driving the train and that its actions have shaped program costs, whether by failing to limit requirements, underestimating technological challenges, reducing production quantities or simple accounting changes. It must keep from doing anything that will raise costs, like cutting production quantities that will merely increase unit cost, even if doing so is politically expedient, or making statements to curry favor with American lawmakers that frighten its partners.
Second, the entire JSF team must work harder to put rising costs into context, including all the factors that go into unit and life-cycle costs, and why they are projected to increase.
Otherwise, JSF will either fail entirely or repeat the mistakes of the B-2 bomber, the F-22 fighter and JSTARS radar plane. All were projected to be built in higher numbers, but were cut to the bone when unit prices soared.