F-35s cost reduction promises and reality

http://www.acq.osd.mil/ara/am/sar/SST-2013-12.pdf

On page 6, it is stated that the F-35s cost has increased by 7,4 billion USD, which is in direct contradiction to statements that the F-35s costs are decreasing. It should be noted that increases due to reduced production rate only account for 5% of the figure, and probably less. Life clycle costs are said to be decreased, but that is in the rank of glass ball prophecies.

On page 18, total acquisition cost for the F-35 is stated to be 398.584.600.000 USD.

 

http://breakingdefense.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/04/F-35-2013-SAR.pdf

On page 75, it is again clearly stated that unit cost has increased by 6,68%. From data on page 92, cost per aircraft can be calculated as 162 million USD.

 

This is in direct contrast to GAOs report stating that the F-35s costs are falling, and was based on two years old data. DoD countered by publishing a new, reduced estimate of F-35s lifecycle costs, by 96,8 billion USD. However, that estimate is also bogus. This document clearly states (pg 95) that costs to repair and maintain the F-35 have gone up by 15 billion USD. However, it also states that “legacy aircraft data” were used whenever F-35-specific data was not avaliable (pg 93). As a result, estimates are unrealistically low, as the F-35s costs are going to be closer to the F-22s costs than the far lower costs of “legacy” aircraft. Further, there were savings through “updated learning rates”, less labor resources, more cost effective skill mix and reduced flying hours (pg 87). All except last are certain to be too optimistic. On pg 96, 54 billion USD cost reduction is achieved through updated spare parts unit database, and 10,61 billion USD reduction by asusming lower labor costs. Thus more likely O&S cost estimate is well above 669.593.653.000 USD, as labor costs are unpredictable even few months on (and are likely to increase long-term), and spare parts requirements are certian to be higher, not lower, as is the fuel price.

And as discussed by Wheeler here, F-35s unit procurement cost is 148 million USD for the F-35A, 251 million USD for the F-35B and 337 million USD for the F-35C, and average unit cost of 178 million USD – nowhere close to the Lockheed Martin’s PR statements about 75 million USD. Even recent reductions in procurement costs might turn out to be due to less aircraft bought as opposed to reduced unit costs. Further, comparing to previous values – 159 million USD for the F-35A, 214 million USD for the F-35B and 264 million USD for the F-35C, with 185 million USD average cost – it is entirely possible that a lot of the F-35As reduction in cost is due to “book cooking”, that is shifting the F-35As cost to the F-35C. And these costs are only production costs – R&D is not included. As a result, 2014 appropriations costs – 174 million USD for F-35A, 232 million USD for F-35B and 273 million USD for F-35C – might be closest to the truth.

 

Quite a few tricks are used to hide the actual cost. 98 million USD figure mentioned was for the F-35A – without engine, and even that cost was not actually correct. And while the F-35s estimated program cost has decreased in 2013, decrease has been achieved by massaging the numbers in the same way as described previously: through predicting lower labor costs, lower spare requirements, all despite successive increases in LRIP costs in all areas. USAF predicts that the F-35As cost will eventually be reduced to 107 million USD per aircraft – but that has no basis in reality.

What about the fabled learning curve? As can be seen from graphs here and here, F-35s costs are going up, not down. And after eight years in production, design should already be mature, meaning that no major cost reductions are likely to occur in the future – especially since major production lots – costing 16 billion USD in 2021 at least – are going to be cut to conform to budget realities. Design of military aircraft never actually stabilizes either, since it is constantly fixed or upgraded. As a result, there is simply no time for the learning curve to set in. Proclamations about a major reduction in unit cost are based on comparing unit costs of production aircraft to those of prototypes – each of two prototypes cost 406,8 million USD to produce (in FY2007? USD).

In the end, total lifecycle costs are likely to be quite high. Total program costs are estimated at 410,99 billion USD: 67,31 billion USD in research and development (55,18 billion USD airframes and 12,13 billion USD engines), 4,42 billion USD in military construction, 339,26 billion USD for aircraft procurement (282,77 billion USD for airframes and 56,49 billion USD for engines). At 2.443 aircraft this gives an average of 168 million USD per aircraft, or 141 million USD without R&D. Further, F-35 is estimated to cost 32.000 USD to operate per hour (total costs). At 180 hours per year per aircraft and 2.443 aircraft, operating costs will be 14.071.680.000 USD per year. If the F-35 remains in service for 30 years, this gives total lifetime cost of 605.610.000.000, for a total of 1.016.600.000.000; that is, over 1 trillion USD or 416 million USD per aircraft.

However, these are likely underestimates. Using 180 million USD average procurement cost gives 439,74 billion USD for all 2.443 aircraft. Additional 4,42 billion USD for military construction will remain same. R&D cost will be increased by 30% (based on the F-22s overruns), leading to total R&D cost of 87,5 billion USD. This gives total procurement costs of 531,66 billion USD, or 218 million USD per aircraft. Further, going by the F-22 example, US F-35 buy will likely be cut from initially planned 2.853 aircraft to 820 aircraft, leading to 147,6 billion USD procurement cost and 239,52 billion USD total, for per-aircraft cost of 292 million USD (note that this is a fairly optimistic prediction, assuming no production cost growth; on the other hand, reduction in number of aircraft bought is also likely to be smaller).

And as this graph shows, F-35s unit cost growth is only starting.

 

But all this money will be worth it, right? Well, no. The F-35s operational testing and evaluation will start in 2016, and until then we will have only used car salesman’s promises and preliminary assessments based on known characteristics.

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44 thoughts on “F-35s cost reduction promises and reality

  1. They are assuming no production cost growth – when this is over, it’s likely to end up being as much as an F-22.

    That’s alarming considering this is a single engine fighter and with vastly inferior performance.

      • I suppose so.

        It is following the cost growth path of most weapons systems since the end of the WWII.

        The net effect of this will be a vastly smaller fleet and one with far less effective aircraft. I think that there will be some aging older frames forced to get their airframe lives extended because of this. I wonder what will happen next. F-16V is one possible plan, but I suspect that another Raptor like contraption is the most likely outcome.

        It is most likely that the defense industry in the US will continue to look for ways to get more expensive and complex weapons. What is equally saddening is that it is affecting defense budgets around the world with the short sightedness and greed.

        • Agreed. But wars always were about money, this is just taking it one step further – disregarding soldiers’ lives in pursuit of profitably ineffective weapons.

  2. You beat me too it with the F-22 reduction example Picard – the F-35 production run of only 800 seems highly likely to me. Even Piere Sprey predicts approximately only 500 will be made for the U.S., therefore the F-35 cost will likely rise to $300-$350 million per aircraft.

    • Yes, I saw that video. That being said, while the F-35 will never get produced in as many examples as it was intended, it is possible that my prediction will turn out to be somewhat low, since US have no fallback option if they want a low-RCS (“stealth” is a misnomer) aircraft. On the other hand, it might also turn out to be optimistic – as I wrote in the article, the F-35s cost growth is only starting.

      • Judging by what is happening it’s entirely possible that the US might opt to “double down” on the F-35 and commit even more funds, while pressuring the other governments around the world friendly to the US to buy and subsidize the costs. That seems to be happening right now, with the money used to maintain existing F-15, F-16, and A-10s, along with various support aircraft being diverted to the F-35, while increasingly the lobbying for more money on defense spending.

        They may go for some older frames too, and the F-16V, but I suspect that they’ll spend even more on the JSF before they come to the conclusion that this is a total folly.

        What’s interesting is that the people who were right all along like Sprey have been ignored.

  3. Sad thing is that nothing is going to be learned from all of this. Nothing was learned from the F-111, the F-22, and well [insert overpriced weapon here].

    The politicians and senior military officers are willfully ignorant since they are the beneficiaries – lucrative careers and money after they leave their posts. The defense industry of course obviously benefits and there’s not much save a few voices in the wind trying to stop this whole madness.

    “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally. ”
    – John Maynard Keynes

    • ” “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally. ”
      – John Maynard Keynes ”

      Mentality of the herd at its “finest”. “If everyone believes it then it is correct, even when it is incorrect.”

      • There’s probably a reason why the neoliberals work so hard to vilify Keynes, even apart from their economics disagreements (and the neoliberals have been shown to be hopelessly wrong).

        But the issue is not economics (although I have to admit, with sane economics, the nation in question would be much stronger and arguably would be able to, should it desire afford a much larger defense budget … which ironically would not buy better weapons), but rather the nature of the MICC. It is essentially a parasite on society that at times has to invent reasons for its massive budget, the ongoing wars, and for various weapons systems. Now that is not to say that there may be some good people as individuals in the system, but the system itself is rotten.

    • The thing is, they haven’t even started the hard tests. That’s going to be around 2020, judging by the current set of delays.

      Then there’s no doubt going to be many costly modifications on top of that and no doubt new problems uncovered.

  4. Unit Recurring Flyaway Cost for the F-35A:

    LRIP 1: $250 million

    LRIP 4: $140 million

    LRIP 8: $108 million

    Target cost: $85 million (2019)

    __________________________________

    The credibility of the ‘esteemed’ Pierre Sprey can be summed up by his famous comment on the F-22 :

    the F-16, as it was in 1986, can whip today’s F-22.

    (Of course he’d emigrated to the music business by the time results of combat exercises involving the F-22 were known.)

    • Where are those numbers taken from? Official ones from GAO are quite different, why?
      Mr Sprey is not my god either but he does know what makes a true war plane and a light, agile, powerfull airplane CAN beat the F-22. I do not mean it always beat but it can. No machine, even “wet dreams” machine is invincible.

      • That is the URFC figure from the contracts signed with LM & P&W. Its not contradicted by any GAO report.

        Very few such things in the world are impossible. That doesn’t change the fact that the F-22 hammered legacy fighters, over-and-over-and-over again in combat exercises.

        ____________________________

        Brenton (call sign “Gripper”) has flown the F-16 for 20 years and has close to 4000 hours, including 750 hours of combat. He is also a former Weapons School instructor pilot at Nellis, the same program in which the 174th today is testing its mettle against the Raptor. He doesn’t like to lose, but against the F-22 he has little choice. “Fighter pilots are competitive by nature. When the F-22 first became operational, most F-16 and F-15 pilots relished the challenge of going up against it,” he says. “I know I did. That is, until I actually did it and discovered how humbling an experience it really was.”
        .
        .
        .
        F-22s dominate at Red Flag as well. Red Teams flying F-16s and F-15s take them on. Those who train to be the adversaries at Red Flag belong to the 64th and 65th Aggressor squadrons. These seasoned Red Team veterans find it frustrating to fight what they can’t see. “Aggressor pilots are not typical Air Force line units. They tend to have much more experience,” says Mike Estrada, a spokesman at the air base. “And I can tell you that our Aggressor pilots are getting very tired of always getting shot down by the F-22.”
        .
        .
        .
        “My F-16 is still a formidable weapons system in its own right. But it is not even in the same league as an F-22,” Brenton says. “Technology keeps the F-22 a virtually undetectable and untouchable regime. It is fair to say that unless an F-22 driver makes a mistake, or has a critical system failure, I will always lose a fight against him. That is a good thing. As a nation, we want it this way. We also want him to be able to handle two, six or eight of us completely on his own.”
        .
        .
        .
        Simulated gun and missile shots are tracked by the controllers on the ground. When a target is killed, the deceased pilot receives a radio call telling him that he is dead. The pilot will often be sent to a location that simulates an enemy alert airfield, where he is “regenerated,” simulating that the enemy has launched another aircraft. (The trainees go back to the base and land if they are killed.) When it comes to fighting Raptors, regeneration is an expected occurrence for WIC Red Teams. “We do everything we can to try and challenge them: We increase our total numbers, we regenerate, we electronically jam the environment. And we die,” Brenton says. “We die wholesale. We are kill-removed repeatedly and then regenerated, and then we are killed again. The process would be demoralizing if we didn’t maintain proper perspective. This is our job while we are here. What motivates us is the fact that we are training our brethren–and they are damn good at what they do.”

        http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/military/4311433?page=2

        ____________________________

        Sprey basically made an ass of himself. This is the same chap who wanted to field the F-16 without a radar, though the F-15 was a loser laden with ‘frivolous junk’ and figured multi-role were a disastrous idea. He’s enamoured with the F-16 because that was the highlight of his career and nobody has been interested in his opinions (outside of youtube) since he detached from John Boyd’s coattails.

      • Rules of training are done to give an army a feeling of superiority with the most adanced weapon they have. In every training, in every country, they let win the “good” side of the game. Does that mean that every army has the best weapon?
        You may believe what you want but you can’t impose your faith to non-believers.

      • Rules of training are done to give an army a feeling of superiority with the most adanced weapon they have. In every training, in every country, they let win the “good” side of the game. Does that mean that every army has the best weapon?

        Red Flag isn’t a confidence boosting exercise, its a training exercise. The ‘Red Forces’/Aggressor units are a training tool. The article on the other hand is about anecdotal experiences of F-16 pilots going up against the F-22. It wasn’t about which side ‘won’ at Nellis.

        The F-22 pilots have already steamrollered the opposition. They don’t need a morale booster through media articles.

        You may believe what you want but you can’t impose your faith to non-believers.

        Whether you or I believe is irrelevant. The folks that have actually trained with the F-22 against all manner of aircraft and all manner of sensors (including IR sensors) appreciate its value.

        Pierre Sprey on the other hand, is a blowhard who has zero access to such war games or to data associated with modern programs.

    • These figures, at least the last one, do not include engines. LRIP 9 costs 148 million USD with the engine. And at least part of the actual reduction was due to transferring costs from the F-35A to other variants. All and all, figures you gave are bogus.

      As for this:
      “the F-16, as it was in 1986, can whip today’s F-22.”

      F-16A might not whip the F-22 but it does have a good shot at beating it: neither can reliably identify friend from foe at beyond visual range, and within visual range, F-16A is far smaller and lighter (15,06×9,96 m, 9.434 kg vs 18,9×13,56 m, 24.883 kg) and has similar wing loading (338,5 kg/m2 vs 317,4 kg/m2). Only issues are far lower TWR (1,15 vs 1,35) and AoA limit of 25,5 deg, but even so it is clear that the F-16A is quite dangerous to the F-22 within visual range. But the F-22 never faced the F-16A in dogfight, all exercises were against the F-15C and F-16C, and even then with huge BVR bias.

      • These figures, at least the last one, do not include engines. LRIP 9 costs 148 million USD with the engine. And at least part of the actual reduction was due to transferring costs from the F-35A to other variants. All and all, figures you gave are bogus.

        All figures include the engine cost. You’re once again (I’ve corrected you on this before) mixing up the flyaway cost and procurement cost. The latter is a variable and depends on the options chosen (as a rule of thumb its about 150% of the flyaway cost). The cost of the airframe (including all mission systems) is about $95-96 million.

        [Transferring costs to other variants is all in Wheeler’s head. He hasn’t produced a shred of concrete evidence to support that. It reeks of desperation as his predictions continue to melt in the face of facts.]

        What the pricing trend I posted proves, is that ‘rising costs’ is a total myth and the exact opposite is true of the aircraft. At least as far as acquisition/lumpsum costs are concerned. The life-cycle forecasts will continue to fluctuate for a long while as the program matures.

        • “All figures include the engine cost.”

          Not likely. In the F-35 programme, engine cost is typically computed separately.

          “The cost of the airframe (including all mission systems) is about $95-96 million.”

          All mission systems except the engine, you mean.

          “Transferring costs to other variants is all in Wheeler’s head.”

          Then explain why only F-35A is being reduced in cost while Bs and Cs costs are either staying same or increasing?

      • Not likely. In the F-35 programme, engine cost is typically computed separately.

        No, the contracts for the airframe & engine are signed separately. (And this is typical for most US fighter programs not just the F-35.) The computations for the USAF and/or DoD on the other hand usually state a unified figure.

        The figures I stated were after adding the airframe and engine costs.

        All mission systems except the engine, you mean.

        Correct. $94-95 mil for the airframe. $13-14 mil for the engine. About $108 mil overall.

        Down from about $112-114 for the LRIP 7 (the decrease is somewhat higher if you factor in inflation).

        Then explain why only F-35A is being reduced in cost while Bs and Cs costs are either staying same or increasing?

        Recurring flyaway cost for all three variants has fallen over the last LRIP. Over the long run, the fall in costs is even more stark; compare the B & C variant costs from LRIP 4 with those from LRIP 7.

        As for the difference in procurement costs between LRIP 7 & LRIP 8, keep in mind this includes non-recurring costs & support that does not remain uniform year to year. It could be possible that the request for spares this fiscal was higher than the last (something that would be consumed by the entire fleet not just by the aircraft being currently ordered). Or it could be result of higher concurrency/retrofit costs, a developmental expenditure that does not impact the FRP units (and will have a minimal impact on the later LRIPs). Or it could be a result of higher expenditure on other non-recurring support activities based on updated operating patterns or new squadron raisings.

  5. Meanwhile, the Indian MoD is slowly realizing what a disaster its Rafale foray is turning out to be –

    Rafale deal hits rough weather:

    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Rafale-deal-hits-rough-weather/articleshow/45847253.cms

    Rafale in storm clouds, Parrikar says IAF can make do with Sukhoi-30s:

    http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/rafale-in-storm-clouds-parrikar-says-iaf-can-make-do-with-sukhoi-30s-114123100706_1.html

    Dassault Insists on Latest Rafale Version for India, Doubles the Price

    http://www.defenseworld.net/news/11872/Dassault_Insists_on_Latest_Rafale_Version_for_India__Doubles_the_Price

    Ditching Rafale

    http://bharatkarnad.com/2015/01/09/ditching-rafale/

    _______________________

    Rafale Deal Nosedives in Negotiation Combat
    .
    .
    Officials say in 2007, when the tender was floated, the cost of the programme was $12 billion (`42,000 crore). When the lowest bidder was declared in January 2012, the cost of the deal shot up to $18 billion (`90,000 crore). Now with inclusion of transfer of technology, life cycle cost and creating assembly line, the deal has virtually crossed a whopping $20 billion.

    http://www.newindianexpress.com/thesundaystandard/Rafale-Deal-Nosedives-in-Negotiation-Combat/2014/12/21/article2581039.ece

    _______________________

    With oil prices tanking, it doesn’t look like the Qatar deal will materialize for Dassault. And if the Indian deal falls through, the Rafale may end up becoming the only 4.5 gen aircraft to never win any export orders.

    • Sorry, but your post is both meaningless and irrelevant. Export success has nothing to do with aircaft quality. MiG-21 had 13.000 aircraft produced, most of which were exported in 60 contries, while far superior Mirage III had 1.000 aircraft exported in 20 countries (plus 300 produced for France itself), and even that success was entirely due to aircraft’s performance in Six Days War (all export attempts before that ended in failure – Germany selected the F-104). F-4 on the other hand was exported in similar numbers to Mirage, despite rather lackluster combat performance.

      Rafale will likely gain exports rather quickly if it ever gets used in air-to-air combat, whereas the same thing would lead to the F-35s exports plummeting. But such situation is unlikely to happen.

      • Sorry, but your post is both meaningless and irrelevant. Export success has nothing to do with aircaft quality.

        It may be irrelevant perhaps. I’m certainly not making any implications vis a vis quality (cost on the other hand…). Its interesting all the same. How many would have predicted 15 years ago that of all the aircraft entering service, the Rafale could be the one that would wind up as an export failure?

        Rafale will likely gain exports rather quickly if it ever gets used in air-to-air combat, whereas the same thing would lead to the F-35s exports plummeting/

        Your opinion. And at odds with the professional opinions of practically all air forces out there. Lets hope we never have to find out who’s right. Cheers. 🙂

        • “How many would have predicted 15 years ago that of all the aircraft entering service, the Rafale could be the one that would wind up as an export failure?”

          You can’t project such things, but unlike Gripen C, Rafale was meant for French use first and foremost (Gripen C is a modification of Gripen A to make it more export-friendly), and unlike Typhoon it has only one nation backing it. Unlike the F-35, that one nation is not a global superpower.

          “Your opinion.”

          Indeed.

          “And at odds with the professional opinions of practically all air forces out there.”

          Considering how often those professional opinions tend to be wrong, I wouldn’t put much money on them.

          “Lets hope we never have to find out who’s right. ”

          Agreed.

      • You can’t project such things, but unlike Gripen C, Rafale was meant for French use first and foremost (Gripen C is a modification of Gripen A to make it more export-friendly), and unlike Typhoon it has only one nation backing it. Unlike the F-35, that one nation is not a global superpower.

        The Mirage was also meant for French use first and foremost. Did pretty well on the export market all things considered.

        Considering how often those professional opinions tend to be wrong, I wouldn’t put much money on them.

        Your money, your prerogative. 😀

      • “The Mirage was also meant for French use first and foremost. Did pretty well on the export market all things considered.”

        And was also far cheaper than Rafale is now, or most of its contenders were then. Just as Gripen now is typically bought on cost grounds.

      • Most of the articles posted are dated to different periods. Cumulatively they say more or less the same thing as the (mostly neutral) article you posted.

        The one thing that your article omits (deliberately?) is the fact that the current cost for the deal has hugely exceeded the Indian MoD’s original cost estimates from when the Rafale was selected, on basis of its financial bid. There were reportedly some issues with that as well, wherein some items had been left ‘unpriced’ by Dassault in its bid (likely through a procedural loophole in the RFP).

        Many Indian observers are coming round to the opinion that the given the prevailing prices, the Rafale deal should be scrapped, and that a combination of the Tejas, Su-30MKI and a customized PAK FA would be more cost effective option and a better balance of quantity with quality.

        The MoD’s changing public stand on the Rafale deal might be a bluff, but it could also well be evidence of it veering around to take a similar position.

  6. There is no issue with the price. Official announcements in December (from both sides) confirmed that. Which hinders is whether or not a private company can take responsibility for a production out of its control and such conditions were not part of the RFP, contrary to what is said.

    • Problem is, the people most responsible are not going to get in trouble for it. They’re going to get rich because of it.

    • This is the Indian defence minister’s statement from yesterday –

      Parrikar outlines alternatives to Rafale

      In an interview to a TV channel, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said the Su-30MKI offered a viable alternative

      A fortnight after declaring that the IAF could make do with additional Sukhoi-30MKI fighters – which HAL builds in Nashik – in case “complications” in the negotiations were not resolved, Parrikar has gone further in outlining how the IAF could function were it decided not to procure the Rafale.
      .
      .
      .
      Parrikar made it clear that the IAF needed to look at the issue of fighter costs. He said, “It is not always… go and purchase it. A cost effective purchase is also important.”

      Declining to reveal the actual cost of buying the Rafale, Parrikar said, “Whether it is Rs 40,000 crore, or Rs 50,000 crore or Rs 1 lakh-crore, we are speaking about 50 per cent of the capital budget of the defence services.”

      http://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/parrikar-outlines-alternatives-to-rafale-115011300014_1.html

      ____________

      Dassault may yet swing this deal but instructive to note that the Indian govt or IAF has never publicly spoken about alternatives to the Rafale since it was shortlisted in 2012. The official line has always been – all is well, just a mere delay.

  7. HI Picard,

    About operating cost:
    F-35-2013-SAR, document linked, reports F-16 c/d 25kusd/h compared to F-35 32k usd/h, page 93. They state many cost voices have been chared on F-16, while F-35 is an esteem.
    In this view F-16 25kusd/h is a TOTAL OPERATING COST. Do you agree?

    • F-16s 25.000 USD per hour definetly is a total operating cost, its direct operating cost is 7.000 USD per hour as reported by Jane’s. Meanwhile F-35s direct operating cost is IIRC 21.000 USD per hour.

  8. Hi Picard, I red your estimate about f-35 full life cost, it was in a comment area, but I can’t find it. Could you help me to find it?
    Thanks
    Y

    • Sorry, can’t remember where it is. Anyway, F-35 price is some 100-150 million USD per aircraft, maybe 150-300 million USD with all additions. Total operating cost will likely be 45.000 – 55.000 USD per hour of flight (this includes price beyond direct operating cost), at 15-20 hours per month, for some 30-40 years. So lifecycle cost should be 393 – 828 million USD per aircraft. This does not include cost of modifications, upgrades etc. which will raise cost significantly.

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