The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been touted as the most advanced aircraft ever built, but it is also on track to be the most expensive military program in the history of the United States, if not the world. The fifth-generation stealth fighter could cost more than $1.5 trillion over the life of the program, which could last until the 2070s.

According to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the DoD has plans to acquire nearly 2,500 of the F-35 Lightning II in all three of its variants – which include the United States Air Force’s conventional takeoff and landing, the United States Marine Corps’ short vertical takeoff and landing (SVTOL), and the United States Navy’s carrier-based version. The cost to acquire those aircraft will cost upwards of $400 billion, while the project calls for an additional $1.27 trillion to operate and sustain them.

The lead defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, had sought to bring those costs down; however, the F-35 simply keeps costing more to operate. The GAO report warned that U.S. military services collectively faces tens of billions of dollars in sustainment costs, and according to recent projections could be unaffordable in a few years time.

Even with efforts to reduce costs, since 2012, the F-35’s estimated sustainment costs over its 66-year life cycle has increased steadily, the GAO warned, from $1.11 trillion to $1.27 trillion. The military will collectively be confronted with tens of billions of dollars in sustainment costs, which will take money from other future programs.

The Air Force would need to reduce the estimate annual per-plane cost by $3.7 million by 2026, or the costs to operate its fleet of F-35s could be $4.4 billion – more than it can afford.

According to the GAO’s draft report, Congress should consider requiring the DoD to report annually on progress in achieving the affordability constraints. Additionally, F-35 aircraft procurement decisions should contingent on the DoD’s progress in achieving those constraints. GAO also recommended that the DoD assess its cost reduction efforts and F-35 program requirements; and in addition develop a plan to ensure it can afford to sustain the future F-35 fleet.

Lawmakers Voice Concerns

The cost of the F-35 has already become a serious issue in Congress, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressing some frustration at the price tag for the program.

“The program is over budget,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who oversees the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee.”It fails to deliver on promised capabilities. And its mission capability rates do not even begin to meet the service thresholds. Industry’s solution to many of these problems is simply to ask the taxpayers to throw money at the problem. That will not happen. The easy days of the past are over.”

Garamendi also fired back at any suggestion that the services could require additional F-35 aircraft in the coming years. He added, “Don’t expect more money. Do not expect to have more planes purchased than in the president’s budget. That’s not going to happen.”

“If our industry stakeholders don’t succeed in quickly driving down the sustainment cost of the F-35, I fear critics of the program will be dealt a stronger hand in their calls to gut the program,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), the top Republican on the readiness subcommittee.

Justifying the Costs

Even as some lawmakers may have lost faith in the platform, the Joint Strike Fighter has its supporters.

“At about $100 million each, the F-35 does cost a lot more than intended, when it was adopted as the replacement for the F-16 and F/A-18,” said Brad Curran, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

“A lot of things happened that required the aircraft to evolve,” Curran told ClearanceJobs. “The Russians are deploying the S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft missile system, and the Chinese have been developing better fighters. We are seeing our near peer adversaries increasing their posture, and as a result the DoD put more pressure on Lockheed Martin.”

There have been several factors at play. The novel coronavirus pandemic resulted in supply issues, while Turkey was also expelled from the program for its adoption of the Russian-made S-400 Triumf as U.S. military leaders and other NATO partners feared the platform could compromise the security of the F-35. As a result, Turkey, which had been a key partner, is no longer producing engines, further driving up some costs including for replacement parts.

The Multi-role F-35

While it is touted as a fifth-generation fighter, it is in reality a multi-role combat aircraft, and the F-35 has to do a number of jobs.

“It has to do stealth, has to have network capability with other aircraft and systems on the ground, it has to have new electronic warfare capabilities, and it has received new sensors,” explained Curran. “One of the requirements was an automated big data imbedded logistics system. There are also software and cybersecurity issues that had to be addressed, because no one foresaw that the Russians and Chinese would be so capable. All those capabilities don’t come cheap, so you have to adapt and that might mean you can’t buy as many.”

However, the GAO report remained largely focused on the sustainment costs, which is still just one part of the larger program. Just this month it was announced that taxpayers could face a $444 million cost overrun for a contract to redesign hardware and software for the F-35 cockpit computer.

“The GAO report is a retrospective on overall program costs, less to do with the price of each F-35, which is stable, but more to do with software implementation of the new Block 4-standard aircraft and the associated simulator,” explained John Sneller, head of aviation at Janes.

“The normal program tensions of performance, cost and time are at play, with over-optimistic assessments of timescales to implement these significant changes to the F-35’s operating software, complicated by the three distinct variants of the platform,” Sneller told ClearanceJobs. “Like all software updates, some ‘increments’ are to develop enhanced capabilities and some are to resolve faults or bugs.  Either way, software in a single engine aircraft needs to be rigorously verified and validated before release, so the more changes the more testing is required. Janes considers that the proposal to introduce a ‘spiral’ upgrade of just four high-frequency code changes would seem to be an appropriate approach for the future.”

Regardless of the costs, it is make or break time for the F-35. As it stands it won’t be a Russian S-400 missile or other weapon that takes down the fifth-generation fighter, but rather its high costs.

“It is expensive, but other than the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the F-35 is the best,” added Frost & Sullian’s Curran. “Some pilots have even said the F-35 is simply the best combat aircraft ever built.”

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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 You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.