An F-35B joint strike fighter from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121. (Staff Sgt. Jessica Smith, USMC)
PARIS — The US Marine Corps’ head of aviation believes the military can cut the operating cost of the F-35 program if it takes a cue from another aircraft full of experimental technology and at times criticized for cost: the MV-22 Osprey.
Speaking to reporters at the Paris Air Show Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle, deputy commandant for aviation, described how cutting operating costs for the F-35B, the Marine Corps jump-jet variant, has become a top priority for the program.
“That occupies a lot of my attention right now, driving down O&S (operating and sustaining) cost, trying to get the O&S cost as low as can be,” he said.
Schmidle pointed to the MV-22 as an example of what the Marine Corps is trying to do.
“In the last four years we have driven the cost of MV-22 cost per hour down by 20 percent over what it was before, and readiness is up,” he said. “It’s phenomenal, go figure.”
Those savings occurred in large part because of a shift in maintenance policy. Instead of sending the vast majority of parts to depots for time-consuming and expensive repairs, as manufacturers normally intend, more repairs were being done on location.
“The way that we did that was we took parts that were truly considered consumables or parts that had to be repaired at the depot level and we began to repair them flight line or at the intermediate level,” Schmidle said. “In the case of MV-22, we began to do a lot of that at the squadron level, so the parts would come in on the flight line and they would literally repair them at the squadron and put them back, so you’d save an enormous amount of time and effort having to move those parts to another location.”
Not only will the MV-22 be important as a lesson in how to bring operating costs down, the Marine Corps is experimenting with new concepts of operations for the F-35 that rely on some of the unique capabilities of the Osprey. This month, a mid-air refueling kit will be tested on the Osprey that would allow the aircraft to extend the range of an F-35, taking advantage of the tilt-rotor Osprey’s higher flight speeds compared to other rotary wing aircraft, Schmidle said.
Also, the Osprey could carry in small diameter bombs to reload F-35s that are flying out of small fields. With fueling and arming possible remotely, the F-35 would be able to operate in a wider variety of environments than other fighters.
While Schmidle is focused on O&S costs, F-35 maker Lockheed Martin is committing to driving down the purchase price of the aircraft.
At an air show press briefing Wednesday, Steve O’Bryan, vice president for program integration at Lockheed Martin’s aerospace division, said the company anticipates beating projections to drive the cost of each aircraft below projections of $85 million, following in the footsteps of the most recent F-35 order.
“Most recently we signed the LRIP-5 [low-rate initial production] contract, and that contract signed for 13 percent below that estimate, and that’s the estimate that gets you to $85 million,” O’Bryan said. “Both Lockheed and the US government expect that trend to continue, the signing of contracts below the US government estimate. To be quite blunt about it, our PEO General Bogdan basically demands it.”
He was referring to the outspoken head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan.
O’Bryan said the program is on track, and earlier issues were more a problem of unrealistic expectations than performance failure.
“To be perfectly blunt, this program had overly optimistic schedules and plans in the past,” he said. “Three years ago we reset the baseline, we put in a realistic plan, we’ve laid in a realistic funding requirement, and since that was done approximately three years ago we are basically on plan, and we continue to be so.” ■
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