The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, which is expected to remain in service to the 2070s, could end up being the most expensive military platform ever built. That fact can be read many ways however, including that it is simply a costly system, or that it is one that will fill multiple roles for decades to come – and possibly both.

Air Force Looks at Many Factors with the F-35

Either way, a new assessment is that the F-35 program, which could total $1.5 trillion during its lifetime, has largely failed to achieve its goals. Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown has suggested that the Air Force should think forward to a sixth-generation fighter, but that it also needs a more cost effective aircraft that could be somewhere akin to generation four and half or fifth generation minus multirole fighter.

“I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft,” Gen. Brown told Air Force Magazine. “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our high end, we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight… We don’t want to burn up capability now and wish we had it later.”

Already the Air Force is set to acquire a number of updated F-15EX fighters, a highly updated version of the Cold War era F-15 aircraft that first entered service in the late 1970s. The adoption of those aircraft could reduce the potential workload on the super expensive F-35, even as Lockheed Martin has said it is working to cut the stealth aircraft’s operating costs to $25,000 per hour by 2025.

“Over the last five years, we’ve reduced the operating costs by 40%,” said Ken Merchant, Lockheed’s F-35 sustainment vice-president in an interview with Flight Global. “We’re predicting that we can take another 40% out of that Lockheed-controlled cost, which is about 39% of the cost per flying hour.”

Delays in F-35 Production

One of the biggest criticisms of the F-35 is that even as it enters its 20th year, program officials have had to continually delay the important full-rate production milestone because the program hasn’t actually completed its initial operational testing phase. While the novel coronavirus pandemic has been partially to blame, and this has included travel restrictions, the fact remains that milestones had been missed well before the outbreak of Covid-19 last year.

What is also notable is that the aircraft still requires testing to reach its full rate of production, even as the aircraft has been adopted by the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps – as well as by more than a dozen partner nations. The fact that it is three aircraft in one – hence a Joint Strike Fighter that has an F-35A, F-35B and F-35C variants – hasn’t helped speed its development.

Yet, because the program is so behind schedule, and shows no signs of entering full rate production anytime soon, the services have resumed buying legacy aircraft – including the F-15EX and F/A-18E/F – while extending the life of A-10s and F-16s, all the aircraft the F-35 was supposed to replace.

MOst Successful Combat Aircraft

There is no denying that the F-35 program has its share of critics, and a lot of the issue is around the aircraft’s $1.5 trillion price tag, but John Sneller, head of aviation for ‘open-source intelligence’ agency Janes, explained in an interview with ClearanceJobs that the program has many merits.

“The aircraft hasn’t entered full production yet,” Sneller said. “But some 400 have been built, and that is actually pretty mature. Likewise, its maker Lockheed Martin has sold the aircraft to 13 nations, including original partners.”

Then there is the fact that it is also only the second fifth generation combat aircraft produced to date, after the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. China is only now beginning to introduce its J-20 while Russia has struggled to meet its goals with its Su-57. Neither nation has been nearly as successful at securing foreign interest to export their respective aircraft.

“The F-35 is by far and away the most successful fifth generation combat aircraft by some margin,” added Sneller.

Price Considerations

Another factor to consider is that the aircraft is maturing, and as noted, Lockheed Martin is striving to bring the operating costs down. But the aircraft itself actually – at around $100 million – shouldn’t be seen as overly expensive.

“We need to bear in mind that some predecessor aircraft including the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon and even the new F-15EX are around the same price,” noted Sneller. “If you look at the technology that the F-35 employs, it is really not that expensive.”

However, one factor that could limit the adoption of the F-35 admitted Sneller is that some countries may opt to “leap frog” to the sixth generation aircraft, which could likely employ autonomous drones or so-called loyal wingman systems. These smaller platforms could work alongside a piloted aircraft and even sacrifice themselves in a combat situation.

The F-35 could help pave the way to such platforms, especially as it is scheduled to remain in service well into the 2070s – something that helps put that $1.5 trillion price tag in perspective.

“That is for the life of the program, and the cost will go down in the 2040s,” said Sneller. “Also one part of the cost is the repairs, upgrades, and keeping the platform going. As more aircraft enter service, those costs will decline.”

Compromises With the F-35

Despite praising the aircraft, Janes’ Sneller did tell ClearanceJobs that the aircraft isn’t perfect, and there is room for improvement.

“We have to recognize that it was built by committee – as it was three jets in one – and that there were commercial challenges that came with the price,” he added. “It is successful in an 80/20 sort of criteria, so no, it isn’t 100% successful. Range is a factor, but it can do things the F-15EX and other aircraft can’t do. The F-35 is a true multirole combat aircraft.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.