This claim is as generous as it is deceptive. For one thing, that is just the estimated cost of an Air Force conventional take-off variant, the F-35A — the least expensive of the three variants. In addition, that cost figure is actually only an estimate, one that assumes everything will perfectly for the F-35 from here on out and that the Pentagon will buy more than it had planned.
When people say the F-35 will only cost $85 million, they are only talking about the price of the airframe and the engine. Proponents don’t include how much it will cost to fix design flaws found in testing — a not insubstantial amount of money.
And supporters are only being truthful in the sense that taxpayers would receive a plane sitting in a hanger. The sticker price of a combat vehicle isn’t like the sticker price on a car.
When a person buys a vehicle, the price they pay to the manufacturer is all they’ll pay to the dealer. When the Pentagon buys an F-35, the sticker price — $85 million in this case — does not include all the money taxpayers will hand over to the contractor.
You also have to consider the cost of upgrades to fix design flaws found in testing. It is important to remember that even after 25 years, the F-35 is still not a fully-designed system.
As the program moves out of the easy part of the testing — the development or laboratory testing — and moves into the critical combat testing period in the next few years, evaluators will uncover even more problems. A good example occurred in late 2016 when engineers discovered debris inside the fuel tank of an F-35.
Upon closer inspection, they found insulation wrapped around coolant lines had disintegrated because a subcontractor failed to use the proper sealant. Contractors will have to devise, test and then put into place fixes to all of these problems throughout the fleet of aircraft Lockheed has already produced and purchased.
This is a costly process. The Government Accountability Office calls this the “concurrency tax.”
The GAO has estimated this cost has already come to $1.7 billion. More, much more, is to come, especially judging from reports from Pentagon’s top tester that many longstanding problems remain unresolved.
Once you have a functional plane, there’s also the cost of the maintenance equipment, the training simulators, augmenting the infrastructure at the fields from which the planes will operate and more. Once that is paid for, you can start field operations where maintenance, fuel and spare parts are all extra.
That is the $1 trillion part of the $1.4 trillion it will cost the Pentagon to buy and operate the F-35.
The price Congress agreed to pay for an F-35A in its budget legislation for fiscal year 2017 was $119.6 million. This did not including all the concurrency costs that are now and will continue to mount up as the test discovery process proceeds.
The Marine Corps’ F-35B, which is capable of taking off from short runways and landing vertically, and the Navy’s F-35C, built to operate from aircraft carriers, will be much more expensive — to the tune of $166.4 million and $185.2 million per plane, respectively. …
There is no question that the military needs new aircraft — if and only if they’re more combat effective than the legacy fighters they replace. The Pentagon-promoted notion that airplanes wear out after a certain number of hours is ludicrously wrong.
When planes are adequately maintained, they can fly essentially forever. Just look at the 55-year-old B-52s the Air Force keeps upgrading or the 70-year-old DC-3s, of which 400 are still in daily service.
The F-35 Is Not Too Big to Fail