How Much Is That F-35 In The Window?


How much is that F-35 in the window?

Some will say, if you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford that puppy.

But since that question is so frequently and persistently asked, let's first take a good look at the puppy.

It is a pedigree puppy that has been carefully "developed" following years of exhaustive and expensive research and selective breeding in order to make it an excellent companion dog, show dog, watch dog, attack dog, etc. In other words, a multi-function dog, the "best in breed."

Obviously, the doggie we are metaphorically talking about is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II multi-service, multi-role, Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). An aircraft that, according to the F-35 Lightning II Program web site:

... [W]ill bring cutting-edge technologies to the battlespace of the future. The JSFs advanced airframe, autonomic logistics, avionics, propulsion systems, stealth, and firepower will ensure that the F-35 is the most affordable, lethal, supportable and survivable aircraft ever to be used by so many warfighters across the globe.

The F-35 is the "next generation" weapon system for the Navy, Air Force, and Marines -- who plan to buy 2,443 of these aircraft -- and for eight allied nations who are cost-sharing partners in the program and will hopefully buy hundreds of additional aircraft.

While the JSF Program Office touts the F-35 as being "most affordable," development, production and life cycle costs of this aircraft have been the subject of much scrutiny, criticism, skepticism, controversy and even (exaggerated) jokes, e.g. "The F-35: A Weapon That Costs More Than Australia..."

But how much does that doggie in the window really cost?

Well, we could just walk in and ask for the price. We may be able to bargain with the store owner, but the final price will be a "firm, fixed price" that includes everything that has gone into "producing" this puppy and some profit. Of course we need to plan on the recurring and non-recurring (e.g. veterinary) costs of owning this puppy for life.

Not so easy for the F-35.

One begins to get an idea of the complexity of figuring out the "real cost" of an F-35 and of the related skepticism and uncertainties when one "googles," for example, "F-35 cost." The number of "results" is amazing, but perhaps more interesting is the way various articles and documents restate the question:

"Actually," "Really", a "numbers game." These words more than anything reflect both the American taxpayers' frustration at not being able to pin down the true cost of the F-35 and their confusion, wariness, even incredulity when faced with costs that run the gamut, as reflected by headlines such as:

Some of the headlines above lament the rising F-35 acquisition and procurement costs while others refer to the costs to operate, maintain and support the U.S. F-35 fleet for its lifetime (i.e. 50 years) after it is manufactured and delivered. Yet another headline blasts the over-target cost projections ($918 million) for the first 28 F-35s. (Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney are cost-sharing in this overrun).

Some of the more pessimistic numbers refer to a Pentagon estimate pushing the estimated life-cycle operating and support price tag for the F-35 over the $1 trillion threshold, thus "bringing the government's forecast of cradle-to-grave cost for the F-35 program to more than $1.3 trillion," which some call "misleading."

Average per aircraft costs are equally difficult to pin down and are all over the map. They range, for example, from Lockheed Martin's original 2001 projections that each aircraft would cost $50.2 million, to recent DOD estimates that "each plane could cost almost double that, between $80 and $95 million dollars each in 2002 dollars," and when adjusted for inflation, "the actual cost for each plane rises to between $95 and $113 million."

Then we have an April 2011 Congressional Research Service Report which tells us that:

As of December 31, 2010, the total estimated acquisition cost (the sum of development cost, procurement cost, and military construction [MilCon] cost) of the F-35 program in constant (i.e., inflation-adjusted) FY2002 dollars was about $270.6 billion.

[But] in then-year dollars (meaning dollars from various years that are not adjusted for inflation), the figures are about $379.4 billion, which would yield a program acquisition unit cost (or PAUC, meaning total acquisition cost divided by the 2,456 research and development and procurement aircraft) of about $154.4 million in constant FY2010 dollars, and an average procurement unit cost (or APUC, meaning total procurement cost divided by the 2,443 production aircraft) of $132.8 million in constant FY2010 dollars.


Total estimated acquisition cost, PAUC , APUC, lifetime operating and sustainment costs, constant FY2002 dollars, then-year dollars, constant FY2010 dollars, are just a few of the factors and variables involved in coming up with a credible and realistic "price tag" for the F-35.

Now, add to this mix the number of F-35 variants and final configurations, guesses at and adjustments for future inflation, per-unit cost dependency on total aircraft produced -- including assumptions for international buys -- numerous and continuing changes in government requirements and scope of work, differences, changes and vagaries in cost accounting methodologies and rules, etc., and one begins to get the idea.

Additional factors and considerations are major cost/budget implications of political issues such as the on-again, off-again, on-again alternate engine debate -- an engine now to be developed by General Electric and Rolls Royce for the next two years with their own funds, hoping for a" change of heart" by Congress.

Such issues, vagaries and variables contribute to the complexity of putting a credible and reliable price tag on the F-35 and leave plenty of room for error, misunderstanding and confusion.

For a thorough discussion of such issues, please read Loren Thompson's June 27, 2011, " Massive Cost Estimate For Fighter Program Is Misleading".

For a comprehensive and up-to-date report on the F-35 program's trials, tribulations and successes, please read "Make or Break Time for the F-35."

Finally, for a classic debate on basic F-35 cost issues between a supporter and a critic of the F-35 program please read here and here.

Of course I cannot tell you how much an F-35 will eventually cost the U.S. taxpayer, but then I doubt it whether Lockheed Martin, the JSF Program Office, the Pentagon, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees -- or anyone -- will be able to.

The best the taxpayer can do is to read and study the numerous competing and at times contradictory reports with a grain of salt and a lot of caution.

But back to the initial proposition that if one has to ask how much an F-35 costs, perhaps one can't afford it.

There is no denying that the F-35 program has had some serious cost, schedule, and -- some say -- technical problems. In the present dire financial straits our nation and our economy find themselves in, if we have to repeatedly and warily ask how much an F-35 costs -- perhaps we really can not afford it.

On the other hand, if -- as many defense experts claim -- the F-35's importance to our national security is immense," and it "will form the backbone of U.S. air combat superiority for generations to come," perhaps we shouldn't even ask the question.

A better approach, in my opinion, is to keep aggressively asking the question until we can afford the answer or, as Ashton B. Carter, the Pentagon's acquisition, technology, and logistics chief, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May. " has to be affordable; and at the moment, ... it's not."

CODA: With advance apologies to Lockheed Martin which, in a rebuttal to industry-watchers Winston Wheeler and Pierre Sprey, says "The F-35 is a racehorse, not a 'dog.'" As a former Lockheed-Martin employee, I have every admiration and respect for the company and its products which in fact have kept our country safe.