"Our initial target is to get them down to the equivalent or very close to what we're currently spending on fourth-generation fighters [such as] the F-16 [Fighting Falcon]," Chief of Staff Gen David Goldfein said.
Goldfein said he credits Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for bringing in former industry executives such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and Ellen Lord, under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, who "know how this business works" from both industry procurement and sustainment perspectives.
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Shanahan was previously the senior vice president for supply chain and operations at Boeing Co., while Lord served as the president and chief executive officer of Textron Systems Corp.
Lord has been putting pressure on Lockheed Martin Corp., maker of the F-35, to reduce costs where it can, Goldfein said. The Air Force is the largest customer for the aircraft, with hopes to procure 1,763 F-35 A-variants.
In response to Goldfein’s comments, Lockheed on Thursday released a statement saying it is working closely with the Air Force to achieve its cost target.
“Lockheed Martin is investing in several initiatives to lower the industry component of F-35 sustainment costs and we continue to partner with the Joint Program Office to reduce overall operations and sustainment costs,” the company said in the statement. “We share the U.S. Air Force’s goal to lower sustainment costs and we are confident that the F-35 will be equal to or less than the cost to sustain legacy, 4th generation fighters.”
How the service budgets support costs may inevitably have a domino effect on procurement.
Goldfein's comments come as the Air Force in its fiscal 2019 budget request chose not to increase its F-35 buy rate to 60 aircraft annually from the current 48, as it had hoped. In fact, if it can't lower ongoing operations costs, the service may be forced to cut its buy rate by a third, subtracting roughly 590 planes from its total, Bloomberg News reported this week.
"We're not gonna stop until we get those costs down to, within reason, what a fourth-gen fighter costs to sustain," Goldfein said, adding that the other services and international customers plan to follow suit.
Asked what he considered close to a fourth-gen fighter price tag for operations and support, he said he said he would like to see it at the same cost.
The F-35's total cost has been projected at more than $1 trillion over a 50-year service lifetime.
Regardless of the recent backlash, Lockheed earlier this month said it anticipates the stealth plane will outpace its fighter counterparts in readiness and production within a few years.
"I am certain the F-35 will set records for aircraft availability for a modern fighter in the future, without a doubt," Jeff Babione, executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 program for Lockheed, said during a briefing March 5.
Babione's comments came days after Vice Adm. Mat Winter, director of the F-35 Joint Program Office, said only 51 percent of the 280 operational F-35s purchased to date by U.S. and international partners are available for flight.