The F-35 jet continues to hit roadblocks as the General Accountability Office (GAO) said in a new report that the US military faces tens of billions in sustainment costs that could make plans to acquire nearly 2,500 F-35 fighter jets unaffordable.
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“For example, the Air Force needs to reduce estimated annual per-plane costs by $3.7 million (47 percent) by 2036, or costs in that year alone will be $4.4 billion more than it can afford,” the report said.
Instead, estimated sustainment costs over the aircrafts’ 66-year life cycle have risen steadily since 2012 – from $1.11 trillion to $1.27 trillion – despite efforts to trim expenses, the report said.
The F-35 program estimates that it will declare Milestone C – a decision point for moving into full-rate production of the aircraft -sometime in the 2021-2023 time frame, the report added.
But without assessing cost-reduction efforts and program requirements, such as the number of planned aircraft, and developing a plan prior to declaring Milestone C, the Defense Department may continue to invest resources in a program it ultimately cannot afford, according to the report.
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The report recommended that Congress consider making future purchases of the fifth-generation aircraft contingent on progress reducing sustainment costs.
Soaring F-35 Costs
Congressman John Garamendi told a joint hearing in Congress in April that the US military faces an “affordability gap” of nearly $6 billion by 2036 on its fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Aircraft, but no more money will be coming for it.
“The status quo is unaffordable: It is unacceptable and it will not continue,” Garamendi said. “This issue must be resolved. Don’t expect more money. Don’t expect more planes to be purchased: That is not going to happen. … The 97 planes that were purchased in recent years have just created a bigger problem for the sustainment of this fleet.”
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Twenty years into the F-35 jet program, which was launched by the Defense Department under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the aircraft’s propulsion engine was still facing severe maintenance problems, Garamendi noted.
“The F-35 fleet will not have a serviceable engine by 2030. The engine repair system is not meeting capacity goals. Nine unscheduled engine changes [were made] during the 2020 engine deployment: Why? … Twenty years into this and we still have not figured out how to maintain the planes. What the Hell is that all about? This is not going to continue,” he said.
Since 2012, F-35 estimated sustainment costs over its 66-year life cycle have increased steadily, from $1.11 trillion to $1.27 trillion, despite efforts to reduce costs, the GAO said in a report released on Thursday.
By 2036, the total shortfall on costs of deploying the F-35 fleet current funding would reach $6 billion, the report said. Other estimates have said the total F-35 program cost would exceed $1.7 trillion.
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In another report from April, more than 40 percent of all F-35 Joint Strike Fighters flown by the US armed forces will be grounded by 2030 because Intellectual Property rights issues with manufacturers are slowing down rates of repairs and part replacements so drastically, GAO Director on Military Structure and Operations Issues Diana Maurer told Congress.
“This is currently a problem: If unaddressed the problem will surface around 2030,” Maurer told a joint hearing of the House and Senate Armed Services subcommittees on the F-35 jet, whose prime contractor is Lockheed Martin and with its engines made by Pratt & Whitney.
The Joint Program Office directing the F-35 program has still not implemented GAO recommendations since 2014 to clarify the technical data that the plane’s manufacturers must supply to Air Force, Navy and Marine operational forces to let them to carry out more repairs at their bases without critical parts needing to be shipped to sustainment depots for assessment, Maurer said.
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“Access to technical data is a vital part of sustaining this vital program. …The GAO program office has not made a decision as to what technical data that they want. The strategy has not come up to speed. We think it is important for them to do that,” she said.
GAO said engine availability will become a “large P” problem by the end of this decade if actions are not taken now to streamline and greatly accelerate the process of repairing the aircraft and its engines, Maurer added.