The Official F-35 Price Tags Are Bogus
Pentagon statements do not reflect real costs or original estimates
by WINSLOW WHEELER - WAR IS BORING
On Dec. 12, 2016, president-elect Donald Trump asserted that F-35 unit cost was “out of control” through his preferred medium Twitter. On Dec. 19, 2016, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, in charge of the Joint Strike Fighter project, gave the press his version of things.
Multiple media outlets passed along the officer’s comments, but with no analysis of the completeness and accuracy of Bogdan’s assertions. The reports offered no context or alternative views on the stealth fighter’s actual cost per plane.
The general said each one of the Air Force’s F-35A would cost $102.1 million, while both the U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35Bs and and U.S. Navy’s F-35Cs would set the taxpayer back 132 million each. Those costs average to approximately $122 million for a “generic” F-35.
Bogdan got these numbers from the funds Congress set aside in the 2015 defense budget for what the Pentagon called “Lot 9,” just one of a number of planned F-35 purchases. In November 2016, the U.S. military was still negotiating the final deal with plane-maker Lockheed Martin.
Needless to say, the unit costs Bogdan gave the media were incomplete. They involve only the Pentagon’s existing contracts with Lockheed and engine-maker Pratt & Whitney to build the airframes and jet motors.
The numbers do not, for example, include the cost to buy maintenance equipment and other necessary support elements. They do not include money the Pentagon will spend to fix design errors discovered in testing now and in the future.
These figures are not the “sticker price.”
One could calculate a far more complete price from the appropriations that Bogdan told Congress he needed to buy functioning airplanes. The difference between what he is telling the press now and what he told Congress in 2015 is significant — it is also the difference between a factory simply putting together a airplane and delivering an airplane that can actually fly and operate.
For the 2015 fiscal year, the F-35 project chief petitioned Congress for $6.4 billion to produce 34 F-35s for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. This amount did not included separate funds for research and development and other costs that the Pentagon asked for in budget request.
With the production data, we can calculate a F-35A has a price tag of $157 million, not $102 million. It’s $265 million for a F-35B and $355 million for a F-35C, not $132 million for either variant.
On average, these F-35s cost $188 million apiece, not $122 million.
More basically, Bogdan says the F-35’s price has been coming down, and indeed it has. The $188 million generic price in 2015 was less than the $250 million the Pentagon quoted in 2001.
For the 2017 fiscal year, Congressional appropriations showed us that the total costs came down again to $128 million for a generic F-35. That’s $113 million for an F-35A, $142 million for an F-35B and $241 million for a F-35C.
However, an old Congressional Research Service report on the F-35 tells us that in 1994 the Pentagon was promising F-35As for $31 million, F-35Bs for $31 to $38 million and F-35Cs for between $30 and 35 million. In 2017 dollars, those costs would be $53 million per F-35A, $53 million to $65 million for each F-35B and $51 million to $60 million for a single F-35C.
Put another way, in 2017, a F-35A costs about twice what the Pentagon promised Congress more than two decades earlier. Compared to this initial estimate, the F-35B costs more than twice as much now, while an F-35C is about four times more expensive.
I suspect Trump can recognize when he is being scammed. In this case, the Pentagon is telling him American taxpayers can get F-35s for only two to four times what they originally advertised.
In 2014, Winslow Wheeler retired as the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight. He worked on national security issues for 31 years in the U.S. Senate for members of both political parties and at the Government Accountability Office.
You can't replace the F-35 with an F-18 any more than you can replace an aircraft carrier with a cruise ship
An F-18 cannot do everything an F-35 can do, unless stealth doesn't matter.
Stealth planes are complex machines. The science of stealth is really two sciences carefully put together: materials and shape, forming an outer casing of an airplane that hides the sensitive guts inside from hostile RADAR. Only a handful of countries have ever developed stealth fighters. Only the United States has ever deployed them in war.
Today, president-elect Donald Trump tweeted about the F-35, America’s long-in-development and expensive new family of stealth fighters.
Stealth is integral to the design of the F-35. A low radar signature means the plane is harder for enemies to see, and so can get closer to targets before it’s in danger. Keeping that stealth body while developing three version: the F-35A for the Air Force, the F-35B with short takeoff and vertical landing capability for the Marine Corps, and the F-35C for the Navy (rugged enough to land on aircraft carriers) meant the planes had to make some compromises in design, like small internal bomb bays for stealth missions. In the 20 years from the start of the development of the F-35, stealth remained a consistent part of the program, one deemed essential by the Air Force and a shared bonus for the Navy and Marines, as well as the foreign allies who are buying the F-35.
Those limitations, and the cost overruns, have left the F-35 both unpopular and without a real, obvious alternative. Trump’s proposal is simple: “I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” It also ignores the stealth at the heart of the much-maligned fighter. An F-18 is many things, but it is not a stealth jet and the systems built around the F-35 are all built to take advantage of the stealth.
It is as absurd as suggesting that a standard 747 airliner can perform the same role as the expensive, highly specialized Air Force One variants built from the 747 airframe. Or, more plainly, it’s like suggesting a cruise ship can do the job of an aircraft carrier: the body is essential for the role, and whatever else the flaws of the F-35, it has a stealthy body and the F-18 doesn’t.