F-35 Will Cost Less To Operate Than Older Fighters. Here's Why Some Policymakers Don't Get That.
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The F-35 was designed to facilitate life-cycle sustainment through the application of smart design concepts and new information technologies, but the potential cost savings are largely missing from Pentagon calculations.
By the end of this year, nearly 500 F-35 fighters will have been delivered to three U.S. military services and various allies. The plane is meeting all of its performance requirements, and the cost of each fighter is steadily declining. In fact, the most common variant of the fighter now costs no more to build than the latest version of the Cold War fighters it is replacing.
This is what success looks like in the aerospace business. And yet somehow, policymakers in the Pentagon manage to find new facets of the program to criticize. The latest issue is that the F-35 supposedly costs too much to operate and support once it is in service. In fact, some people are claiming the Air Force needs to keep operating Cold War planes in its fighter fleet, because it is too expensive to sustain a fleet consisting solely of “fifth-generation” fighters like F-35.
That argument is wildly inaccurate. It can be easily demolished by citing a few key facts and then applying elementary logic to the challenge of maintaining U.S. air dominance through mid-century. What follows are the five most important factors explaining why some policymakers can’t grasp the fact that F-35 is a far more cost-effective solution to the nation’s tactical air power needs than continuing to operate planes developed many decades ago.
I should mention that I have business ties of one sort or another to several companies engaged in building the F-35, most notably airframe prime contractor Lockheed Martin and engine prime contractor Pratt & Whitney.
Pentagon estimates ignore wartime effectiveness. Policymakers rely on the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation (CAPE) office to estimate the expense of sustaining planes. However, CAPE measures sustainment costs without making any effort to correct for differences in capabilities. So, the fact that F-35 is eight times better than legacy fighters at surveillance, six times better at air-to-air combat, and five times better at striking ground targets is missing from the calculations, distorting comparisons. If a last-generation fighter needs to be supported by jamming planes to reach targets, support F-35 doesn’t need, the cost of the jammers is left out of the comparisons.
Pentagon estimates ignore wartime attrition. Combat losses are also left out of the calculations. Fighters lacking the F-35’s stealth, electronic defenses and situational awareness would likely suffer horrendous losses in combat with a near-peer adversary. F-35 would fare much better because enemies can’t track or target fighters with integrated stealth designs. But because replacing combat losses isn’t part of the sustainment methodology, the fact that a third or more of legacy planes might be shot down in combat is completely missing from comparisons. Obviously, the need to replace lost fighters and train new pilots would be a significant expense.
Pentagon estimates fail to account for aircraft age. Aircraft have a life-cycle, just like people do. When they are young, they need a lot of support. As they mature, they become more efficient. But when they grow old, the planes once again become expensive to sustain. CAPE ignores all this in calculating sustainment costs, comparing F-35s that have been operational for only two or three years with Cold War fighters that have been flying for decades. By failing to correct for the very different maturities of new and legacy fighters, it provides a misleading picture of what planes will actually cost to operate in the future. F-35 will cost less to operate as it matures—a fact already apparent in the most recent production lots—while legacy planes will become more expensive as they age out.
Pentagon estimates fail to capture hidden costs of older planes. F-35 was designed as a highly integrated system with on-board information systems that could track and predict sustainment needs. Older fighters are too primitive to provide such data. So, whereas the F-35’s sustainment system captures all the costs of keeping the plane airworthy and ready, there is no easy way of capturing all the support costs for older fighters. Items like targeting pods and defensive sensors that have sizable logistical “tails” over the lifetime of a fighter are included in the estimate of F-35 sustainment costs, but largely excluded from estimates for legacy planes. The Air Force tried a while back to consolidate all the systems needed to track sustainment costs on legacy fighters but eventually gave up—it was too complicated.
Pentagon estimates fail to capture savings from new technology. One of the drawbacks of relying heavily on past experience to project future support costs is that it minimizes the savings afforded by new technology. The information system that tracks logistical needs on the F-35 is far superior to anything on legacy fighters, and Lockheed Martin is rearchitecting the system to incorporate further advances since the program began. As new technology is leveraged to enhance F-35 readiness and aircraft operating concepts are refined, there will be huge gains in efficiency. That’s what always happens as new aircraft move down the learning curve, but F-35 will see more marked improvement than past fighters because digital technologies will be applied to every facet of the sustainment challenge.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement on F-35. Spare parts need to be stocked better, maintenance skills need to be honed, and subcontractors need to be incentivized to perform at the top of their game. Both Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney have launched initiatives to greatly reduce sustainment costs as the F-35 matures. Older fighters, though, are what they are; the opportunities for savings on labor, material and overhead are limited. It’s a complicated business, so we shouldn’t be surprised that some policymakers don’t understand the intrinsic cost-effectiveness of the F-35 fighter.