WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has unveiled a new funding profile for the F-35 joint strike fighter, reflecting a drop in fighter jet acquisition over the next six years across the US services, international partners and foreign customers.
Lockheed Martin and the F-35 joint program office will build 20 fewer planes over that timeframe for the US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, international partners and foreign customers, JPO Chief Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan told reporters during a Feb. 10 media roundtable. Instead of building 893 fighter jets from fiscal 2016 to FY21, as planned last year, the government and industry team will produce 873, he said.
Bogdan downplayed the impact of the drop, saying the reduction will translate into a unit cost increase for the US services and international partners of less than 1 percent.
"I can tell you: The price difference between 893 and 873 airplanes, I'm not sure I can even measure that," Bogdan said. "It's ... way less than 1 percent in overall price to everybody."
Bogdan's math includes Canada's planned 65-aircraft purchase, although new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to pull out of the partnership. The 873 figure does not include any potential new foreign military sales.
The JPO will also generate savings with a planned bulk purchase of the airplane, or "block buy," beginning in FY19, Bogdan said. The Pentagon's latest budget request reflects a decision not to include advanced funding in FY17 for a multiyear F-35 buy to start as planned in FY18, but the department does allot money in FY18 for a block buy to start in FY19, Bogdan said. The deal would cover FY19 through FY21 and is expected to save over $2 billion in total, he stressed.
International partners and foreign customers can choose to move forward with a block buy starting as soon as FY18 without US participation, Bogdan said. The Pentagon can then choose to opt in to the deal in later years.
The changes to the F-35 blueprint reflected in the Pentagon's FY17 budget rollout Feb. 9 sent observers scurrying to calculate the implications for the international program. Each of the US services saw changes in its F-35 buy over the five-year defense plan, but the net change for the JPO and Lockheed Martin was not immediately clear.
For the Pentagon, not including international partners or foreign customers, the total F-35 buy across the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) has decreased 8 percent, from 436 to 404, spokesman Mark Wright wrote in a Feb. 10 email. This includes the Air Force's reduction of 45 F-35As and the Navy's net increase of 13 F-35Bs and F-35Cs.
The Defense Department's total planned buy has not changed, Wright stressed.
"The total planned buy for the department has not changed but the new profiles ensure the department pursues the most cost-effective way to field fifth-generation fighters," Wright said.
For the Air Force at least, the change reflects a deceleration of the planned ramp up in production to 60 aircraft a year starting in FY18. The FY17 funding profile shows the service will not get to that rate until FY21.
However, since all models US and international models are built on the same line in Fort Worth, Texas, there should be no significant changes to production, said Lockheed spokesman Mike Rein. Lockheed is preparing to ramp up production to more than 150 airplanes per year in the early 2020s.
"Despite a small amount of aircraft being deferred, the F-35 line will see a substantial ramp up in production to a point where we'll be producing more than 150 aircraft a year in the early 2020s," Rein said.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James echoed Bogdan's and Lockheed's statements during a Feb. 10 hearing before the Senate Appropriations' Subcommittee on Defense, stressing that despite the aircraft deferred across the FYDP, the F-35 unit cost will not change substantially.
"In terms of the unit cost of the F-35, ordinarily [when] you decrease the numbers that you are buying, ordinarily that means that a unit cost will go up for each individual aircraft," James said. "In this case however, because there are FMS purchases in the works and other services are buying F-35s, we believe that this will allow us to still have a stable unit price. We don't believe that the cost will go up at least not substantially in this case."
Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord took a different tone, however. Although the reduction to 404 total Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps F-35s over the next five years is not expected to produce a significant change in the unit cost, it is not clear the Pentagon will be able to get back to the planned production rate, he said.
"We are trying to get it back up to where we want it to be across the FYDP," McCord said Feb. 9 at the Pentagon, referring to the Future Years Defense Program. "But it's just a lot of money too, and it's unclear that we will be able to get this program back to the ramps that we had hoped for previously."