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Pentagon estimates operating F-35 fleet may cost $1 trillion

It may cost as much as $1 trillion to operate the military’s fleet of Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 aircraft for several decades, according to a preliminary Pentagon estimate sent to Congress.

The figure is 9.3 percent more than the $915 billion estimate by the Defense Department in its 2009 Selected Acquisition Report to Congress.

The long-term cost estimate, which includes inflation, was submitted to Congress on April 15 in a report obtained by Bloomberg News. It assumes 8,000 hours of flying time for each of the 2,443 aircraft over a 30-year period. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have their own variations of the aircraft, with the last in the fleet to be produced in 2035.

The estimate was calculated by the Pentagon’s independent cost analysis group based on models using historical data from other fighters, David Van Buren, Air Force service acquisition executive, said in an interview.

“We are taking the challenge” posed by the $1 trillion estimate and “saying we’ve got to drive this down fast,” said Van Buren, who oversees F-35 management. “Do we drive down it down based on reliability projections? Do we drive it down based on technologies that we developed for the F-35” that reflect lessons learned from the F-22, he said?

For example, the latest estimate assumes that F-35 components will break more frequently than older aircraft, he said. The Pentagon is trying to develop “a more refined number,” he said.

The $1 trillion estimate is in addition to an estimated $382 billion in development and production costs.

The long-term maintenance estimates were projected based on costs incurred to support the military’s fleet of F-16s, F/A- 18s, and AV-8B Harrier jets, the Pentagon said in its report

Almost all government, analyst and media attention on the Pentagon’s biggest program has focused on cost growth and technical issues in the $54 billion systems-engineering phase.

The Pentagon’s top weapons official, without citing figures, said that the military must start focusing on controlling the long-range costs.

“It’s not too early to think of sustainment for the Joint Strike Fighter,” Undersecretary for Acquisition Ashton Carter said at the Heritage Foundation in Washington last week. “Most of the cost of our programs is in ‘having’ them, not in ‘acquiring them.”

“We are at the point with the Joint Strike Fighter where we have wrestled with the development issues,” Carter said. “We are trying to manage down some of the cost associated with the production, and it’s not too early to look at sustainment, because the projected bills also have increased.”

The Pentagon’s Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation group is updating its $1 trillion figure for a major F-35 review next month intended to revise all of the program’s costs, including overrun estimates on the first three low-rate aircraft production and engine contracts, according to the report to Congress.

Operations and support costs, when calculated in base-year 2002 dollars, were estimated at $420 billion, according to the document.

“This is the year to focus on sustainment costs,” Vice Admiral David Venlet, the F-35 program executive officer, said last week. The estimates thus far “have all been predictions without any actual” data to back up the figures, he said.

The program office will begin a so-called baseline review of the sustainment cost, similar to the F-35 design and production review conducted last year, Venlet said.

The review will examine “all aspects of sustainment, from repair to transportation and illuminate the consequences” for the U.S. and the international partners, he said.

The Pentagon will look for ways to maintain the F-35 fleet with work split between military depots and performance-based logistics contracts with Lockheed, Venlet said.