Congressional aides are beginning to wonder if the Navy should buy the carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, in light of the program's rising price tag and its higher flight costs.
"I’m growing more and more convinced that the Navy variant of the F-35 might not be worth buying. The program is sliding further and further to the right, as costs increase. When we have an 80 percent solution in active production, and significantly cheaper, the F-35C looks like a great candidate for cancellation," said one congressional aide. "Gates has talked about choosing 75 percent solutions over expensive 'exquisite' systems and this is a perfect candidate."
For its part, the Navy, already worried it won't have enough planes for its carrier fleet, has briefed senior Pentagon leaders that the Joint Strike Fighter program "will have a significant impact on naval aviation affordability in the FYDP and beyond."
A source who follows JSF closely quoted portions of the NavAir study, "Joint Programs TOC Affordability." A congressional aide who has seen the report confirmed the information. The study was briefed to DoD leaders earlier this month;
The source said that the study finds "the cost to operate and support the F-35 (all variants) will be $442 billion or more depending on additional costs for integration on ships and currently unforeseen development costs. This estimate is in FY 2002 program baseline dollars; the current dollar cost will be significantly higher. The production and development costs are cited, by the JET II, to be $217 and $46 billion respectively (2002 $), thereby making total program ownership cost to be $704 billion, or more, in 2002 dollars,:" according to this source.
That would put operating costs of the F-35 B and C versions some 40 percent higher "than the cost to operate the existing (larger) fleet of F-18A-Ds and AV-8s. Cost per flight hour of the combined F-18A-D and AV-8 fleets is estimated to be about $19,000 per hour; F-35B/C cost per flight hour is estimated to be about $31,000," the source said. "These higher and growing operating costs are certainly typical for a new generation aircraft, but the revelation of these estimates at this relatively early point in the program would seem to demonstrate some real and growing concern that the highly complex F-35 is anything but 'affordable.'"
An industry source noted that the chief of Naval operations "has been very interested across the force in terms of total operating costs. It is significant that this study addresses this." The industry source said that Super Hornet flying hour costs are about $5,000 an hour.
A second congressional aide raised some questions about the study's methodology, saying that "the worker level people, when asked about the assumptions by an assistant secretary in the Navy, didn’t have real good answers to that question. So while some of the numbers are very specific, the assumptions are not." But this aide, who follows both programs, agreed that the NavAir study was a good argument for the F-18. "But yes, if they are looking for tails versus presumed better capability for more money and given the budget crunch and need for more ships they have HUGE problems," the aide said.
The source who provided the study results noted that it "shows nothing for F-18E/F flight hour costs, which makes me suspicious."
While Congress may not be ready to cancel the carrier version of the F-35, the industry source noted that support for the F-18 "has been gaining momentum in the Congress really over the last three years," largely to address what has been identified as a shortfall in the number of planes available. "Each year more and more language has been written noting Congress' concern with the shortfall as well as questioning what the Navy and DoD are going to do about it."
Most interestingly, this source said the Navy is looking over the long term for a sixth generation aircraft, one with "increased range, increased persistence, increased speed and increased payload." The F-35 is, of course, a fifth generation fighter.