The Costly F-35 Program, or How Not to Build a Warplane

The Costly F-35 Program, or How Not to Build a Warplane
An F-35C Lightning II carrier variant Joint Strike Fighter lands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, Nov. 5, 2014 (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Spc. Shauna C. Sowersby).

Canada may scale back its purchase of F-35 fighter jets, citing rising costs, according to a government report released last week. In an email interview, David Axe, editor of War is Boring, discusses the current status of the F-35 program.

WPR: What is the current status of F-35 production, and how do current purchase orders compare to initial commitments?

David Axe: Production is around 40 planes annually—and has been for a few years now. Most are for the U.S. military, but allied air forces have also begun to acquire a few copies. That’s a much, much lower production rate than the Pentagon projected at the beginning of the F-35 program back in the 1990s. And the overall number of planes Lockheed Martin expects to sell over the next few decades has declined by many hundreds, to a current total of around 3,500—mostly for the U.S. Take low production rates, lower overall orders and repeated delays owing in part to technical problems, and add them all up: The combined effect is high cost. Today you can’t buy a new F-35 and its engine for less than $100 million, twice as much as a new F-16 or F/A-18. And the vertical-launching and naval variants—the F-35B and F-35C—are up to twice as expensive as the basic F-35A. The program office plans to boost production and hopefully drive down prices. But that depends on demand. And while the political support for the F-35 is strong in U.S., it’s softer abroad. So demand can be volatile. And as a result, it’s hard to have much confidence in the program’s predictions regarding price cuts.

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