With the life cycle costs of the U.S. F-35 aircraft continuing to remain in the stratosphere, it is doubtful whether the U.S. Air Force will be able to buy 1763 of them. If the price structure does not come down, then perhaps the Lightning II could be replaced by another structure, such as the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, says Will Roper, head of the US Air Force purchasing agency.
The Pentagon is unlikely to order sufficient F-35As per year to arrive at 1763 fighter jets by 2025. Even if somehow the Pentagon manages to solve this issue, keeping these fighter jets in service would also be expensive.
Lockheed Martin will need to increase the flight hours of the jets in order to reduce their operation cost.
According to the outgoing head of the USAF’s purchasing agency, Lockheed Martin is continuing its focus on developing the F-35, including the F-35A, and is primarily focusing on expanding its capabilities. According to Roper, while Lockheed Martin’s work continues to be on schedule it nevertheless boost additional costs.
Case in point: the USAF has recently upgraded the entire F-35A fleet to the Block 4 standard which cost the exchequer $12.1 billion, $1.5 billion more than previously estimated.
For this reason, Pentagon recently decided to transfer the 11 oldest Lightning IIs to the Aggressor Squadron where they will be able to effectively pretend to be Chinese or Russian jets, without the need to carry out expensive upgrades at $15 million per jet.
According to military experts, given the existing maintenance price structure of the Lightning II, they can be kept in service to successfully counter the Chinese in a possible future war. They are considered better than the Chinese 4th generation fighter jets, as well as the 4th generation plus fighters and probably even better than their 5th generation fighter jets.
By increased adoption of new digital testing methods, as is the effect of the NGAD program, this machine could prove to be cheaper to maintain. Advances in recent coatings absorbing radar radiation could also reduce costs.
Further, advances made through the NGAD program, especially that it’s still undisclosed silhouette may be devoid of many surfaces generating additional surfaces for the reflection of radar radiation, e.g., vertical fins, could also be more cost-effective.
With the NGAD program increasing competition between U.S. companies, it could potentially lead to the creation of cost-effective solutions , said Roper.
Furthermore, with the Kessel Run team now fully involved in creating a new logistics system for the F-35 Operational Integrated Data Network (ODIN), which will replace the ALIS system designed by Lockheed Martin, costs are likely to drop, increasing the chances of being a mass multi-role USAF aircraft.
In a statement, Lockheed Martin said, while it understands that the cost of maintaining the F-35 remains very high, it is doing everything to reduce it; incidentally, it has reduced by nearly 40% in the last five years.
Considering that the impact the NGAD program is likely to bring for future generation of fighter planes, it is too early to say whether it could replace the F-35A.
At the moment, the flight time of the F-35A costs $42,000 to 44,000, compared to around $25,000 for the F-16C – recognized as one of the most cost-effective in the world.
It would be interesting if the Pentagon can reduce the cost of an F-35A’s flight time to that of the F-16C.