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Air Force Predicting F-35 Maintenance Costs May Spike

by John Reed on February 2, 2011

Well, it appears that the Air Force may be joining the Navy in predicting that the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter will cost significantly more to maintain than the current crop of fourth and 4.5 gen fighters.

In January, 2010, a Navy briefing emerged predicting that the F-35 would cost between 25 and 40 percent more to fly and maintain than the sea service’s F/A-18s.

Now, Air Force officials are saying similar things, according to sister site DoDBuzz:

Senior Air Force leaders are growing increasingly concerned that Joint Strike Fighter maintenance and operating costs will rise far above previous estimates.

A source familiar with the issue said that the Air Force believes a study performed by the Navy one year ago looks increasingly accurate, based on preliminary data the service has compiled.

However, there may be a catch in the air service’s evaluation of the F-35’s so called, lifecycle costs, according to Buzz.

Apparently, the Air Force is using the operational and maintenance costs of its aging fleet of F-16s as the benchmark for predicting F-35 costs. As such, the service is moving to provide F-16 levels of maintenance manpower for the F-35. This, according to Buzz, is largely behind the predicted cost spike

Yes, in theory, the Air Force has to use something to serve as a metric for predicting costs. Still, the F-16 and F-35 are radically different jets that were designed thirty years apart. Lockheed and the F-35 program office say the jet will come with a game-changing maintenance tail; one that constantly monitors the health of each jet and automatically orders maintenance work and spare parts in a just-in-time fashion. This system is designed to dramatically lower maintenance costs for the plane, in part by seriously reducing the number of maintenance personnel needed. Don’t forget that the program was supposed to use a performance based logistics contract for the jet and that much of its training will be done using simulators. Both are designed to further reduce costs.

As Buzz notes, the lowered maintenance costs of the F-35 were a key to getting so much international participation in F-35. In fact, the program is relying on sharing maintenance and sustainment work among the JSF partner nations, something that is supposed to lead to decreased costs. Let’s see what many of the cash strapped partners have to say about this report.

Just last year, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz called the Navy numbers suspect and said he was concerned that if the Navy cut its F-35 buy due to costs it would lead to an increased price tag for the Air Force’s variant of the jet.

The Air Force is going to have to find a workaround to this projected maintenance cost problem. How else will it be able to afford its 1,763 F-35s as well as a new bomber and all the other high-end aircraft such as stealth UAVs it thinks it will need to continue fighting major wars?

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