Government waste is hardly a new thing, but when the Pentagon recently released their latest total cost figures for the F-35 fighter program, even the skeptics raised a curious eyebrow. According to the latest figures, the total cost of ownership for all 2443 F-35 Fighters the military plans to order comes in at a staggering $1.45 Trillion dollars. Yes, that’s Trillion, with a “T.” These total cost figures have been rising steadily since Lockheed Martin first began development of the fighter, and some industry critics are sounding the alarm at the staggering cost. On closer inspection, however, there might not be as much cause for concern as the number would first indicate. We’ll take a closer look at the figures just below.
The first thing to understand is that the Pentagon’s final total cost figure includes the fighters, all upgrades to them over the next five decades, maintenance, overhauls, and factors in a healthy dose of inflation. If you break that number down year-over-year, then you arrive at a much more palatable twenty-nine billion dollar figure. That’s not pocket change, by anyone’s definition (well, perhaps anyone but the Pentagon), but that number doesn’t look nearly as terrifying as $1.45 Trillion.
Also, bear in mind that the F-35 is designed to replace seven different aircraft in service today. As a multi-role, radar-evading fighter, it can do several jobs, and do them better than the aircraft currently in service. In order to get an accurate comparison, we’d need to see what the total cost of maintaining those seven different programs would be over the same fifty year period. Unfortunately, those figures, if they exist at all, have not been made public.
A curious point about the numbers that the Pentagon released is that, for reasons that are not clear, the engine was priced separately from the fighter itself. This makes the F-35’s cost figures unique among combat aircraft. That’s actually never been done before, and no one has commented on why it was done now. The price per fighter is listed as being: $135 million, plus $26 million for the engine.
Breaking the cost down
However you break the cost down, since we know that the Pentagon plans to order 2443 of them, that brings the total initial cost of the aircraft to $393,323 billion dollars, which of course is only a fraction of the total estimated cost. A deeper look into the Pentagon’s own numbers bear out that more than a third of the total projected cost is accounting for estimated inflation, and the greater bulk of the total cost over the fifty year period is maintenance and overhauling to keep the planes current as technology changes around the platform.
Also, one of the major reasons for this most recent total cost increase is that the Pentagon, again, without explanation, decided to change how it was estimating total cost. Initially, their figures were based on a thirty-year horizon. They only changed to a fifty-year horizon with the release of these most recent figures, which of course, accounts for the lion’s share of the increase from these figures over the last ones released.
It is true that Lockheed Martin has also upgraded their cost estimates over the course of the development of the craft, but as with everything else mentioned so far, there’s more to this than first meets the eye. Far from being a case of a government contractor gouging the person writing checks to them, almost all of Lockheed Martin’s increases have actually originated from the Pentagon.
The reason? It all goes back to the fact that the Pentagon is attempting to design a multi-role fighter that will ultimately take the place of seven existing military aircraft programs. On several occasions, they’ve sent requests for new capabilities to Lockheed, which has caused them to have to go back to the drawing board on more than one occasion, as they grapple with how to deliver a finished product that will do everything the military wants and needs it to do. The requirements keep changing, and getting more complex.
Granted, it’s no trivial task to design a fighter to take the place of so many others, but the Pentagon has again, complicated matters by continuing to engage in “feature creep,” which is a term used by computer programmers when requests for new features are continually being made after the coding has started. It has proven very difficult to rein the Pentagon in, and get them to commit to a final design document, with no further changes being made. That’s what’s ultimately driving the increases in the price of development.
Of course, everyone has heard horror stories about the government buying mundane items like hammers and toilet seats for hundreds of thousands of dollars, so any time a shocking figure like this is released, it’s natural to assume the worst. In this particular case though, once you start breaking the figures down, they really don’t look all that bad. In some ways, the Pentagon has become its own worst enemy, by choosing to look at the total cost figures for a much longer time frame than they normally do.
There is little doubt that when the design for the F-35 is finalized, and they take to the skies, it will be a modern mechanical and technological marvel, capable of slipping past enemy lines, undetected by radar and performing its mission with amazing precision and accuracy.
If the government will get out of its own way and let the company build the plane they ordered, and stop changing the way they measure the total cost of ownership, we’d stop seeing eyebrow-raising headlines like these, and finally get to see the mighty F-35 in action.
The bottom line here is, although the numbers look terrifying, on closer inspection, they’re not nearly as bad as the alarmists would have you believe. The biggest fear is that one of the West’s enemies will find a cheap and effective way to counter the advantages of the F-35. We’ve seen this many times before in a variety of industries. Asymmetrical warfare is, in fact, one of the Pentagon’s biggest concerns, and it raises legitimate questions where the F-35 is concerned. These, in fact, are much more worrisome than the latest cost figures.