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F-35 Costs May Still Be Understated By Billions Of Dollars

After numerous, well-publicized delays and cost overruns, the Department of Defense estimates that the F-35 will cost roughly $1 trillion over a 56-year life cycle.

Even this figure might understate the actual cost by billions of dollars, the Government Accountability Office cautioned in a report released on Tuesday.

The F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is intended to replace “a variety of existing aircraft in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.” Development of the next-generation fighter began in 2001, and the program is currently in the low-rate initial production phase, with full-scale production planned for 2019. (RELATED: Top 5 Reasons the F-35 Will Rule the Sky)

The DOD is “required to establish adequate sustainment and support systems for the F-35,” by the time full-scale production begins, and DOD officials told the GAO that affordability is their top priority in devising those systems.

According to the GAO, however, “the current sustainment strategy that DOD is developing may not be affordable,” because “at least 70 percent of a weapon system’s life-cycle costs stem from operating and supporting (O&S) the system,” and even at their lowest point, annual O&S costs for the F-35 are expected to be about $19.9 billion. (RELATED: Grounded: More F-35 Problems Delay New Jet)

In contrast, the combined O&S cost of four legacy aircraft came to about $11.1 billion in 2010, which was “a high point for aircraft O&S budgets due to contingency operations at that time.”

Moreover, the affordability targets set by the DOD were “not informed by actual resource constraints within service budgets at the time,” so it is unclear whether the program will be affordable for the military even if those targets are met.

The GAO also determined that, “there are weaknesses in a few of the assumptions,” used in O&S cost estimates, particularly regarding fuel burn rates and maintenance costs.

The estimated fuel burn rate, for instance, “reflects fuel burn data from aircraft flown using limited capabilities.” The Air Force estimates that the higher fuel consumption of aircraft performing at full capability “would represent a $4.0 billion cost increase…across the life cycle of the aircraft.” (RELATED: F-35 Soars Onward Despite Massive Cost)

Similarly, the Air Force and Marine Corps report that based on initial tests of the F-35, “parts are being replaced, on average, 15 to 16 times more frequently,” than the DOD had projected. The GAO claims that, “part-replacement cost across the life cycle of the program would have been roughly $120 billion greater,” if those replacement rates had been used in cost estimates.

“Until DOD develops a viable sustainment strategy, addresses key risks, and improves its cost estimates,” the report concludes, “the department will likely continue to present Congress with near-term funding requests without having full knowledge of the extent of the program’s long-term financial requirements.”

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