WASHINGTON: At a time when much of the talk about the F-35 program has centered on trimming its overall numbers of 2,443, we learned today that the Marines plan to increase how many of the hovering B models they buy.
Close observers of the program might not be too surprised by the Marines’ decision. At the Paris Air Show, outgoing aviation commandant Lt. Gen. Jon Davis said he wanted to add 13 F-35Bs to his service’s program. Now they’ve done it. That brings the overall size of the F-35 program to 2,456. The new figure was included in the annual Selected Acquisition Report, a deep dive into the financial state of large defense programs.
But not all the news was good for the F-35, which President Trump has claimed to have in his cross hairs. Trump has repeatedly claimed to have helped lower its costs, although there is little evidence he made a difference and much evidence that program officials have simply done their jobs each time they negotiate a new LRIP purchase for a lower price. But we’ll let the president claim the credit.
The program’s acquisition costs rose to $406.5 billion from $379 billion in then-year dollars, a rise of 6.8 percent. But in base year fiscal 2012 dollars the costs rose to $324.6 billion from last year’s estimate of $313.3 billion, a rise of just 3.5 percent. Pick the dollars and then critique the program as you will.
The bottom line is, as the SAR notes, “actual negotiated prices continue to be below SAR estimates.”
Some of the acquisition cost increases come from the Air Force’s decision to whack the size of its maximum annual purchase of F-35As from 80 per year down to 60, stretching the service’s planned purchases by six years. The Total Program Cost Estimate rose by $11 billion, a substantial portion of the $27.5 billion acquisition cost increase. Lockheed Martin, the program’s prime contractor, will no doubt point out to Congress that increasing the rate of production would reduce those costs and help modernize the increasingly ailing Air Force.
“The F-35 program remains within all cost, schedule and performance thresholds and continues to make steady progress,” Vice Adm. Mat Winter, F-35 Program Executive Officer, says in a statement. “The F-35 Joint Program Office is committed to the delivery of cost-effective warfighting capability across all areas of the program and is aggressively pursuing affordability opportunities within our three lines of effort — Development, Production, Sustainment — to further drive down total program costs now and in the future.”
Sen. John McCain, whose sharp criticisms of the program have been largely rhetorical exercises in recent years, tweeted that the latest SAR demonstrates that: “After years of delays & massive cost overruns, another reminder that the true cost of the F-35 program is still TBD.” But this year’s draft National Defense Authorization Act adds 24 F-35s above the 70 planes the Pentagon asked for.