Joint Strike Fighter: Costing More and Flying Less | Citizens Against Government Waste

Joint Strike Fighter: Costing More and Flying Less

The WasteWatcher

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) procurement can be summed up in six words:  cost overruns, delays, and poor performance.  In continuous development since the initial contract was awarded in 2001, total acquisition costs exceed $428 billion, or 84 percent greater than the initial estimate of $233 billion.  Much of the blame should be directed toward the contractor and the Department of Defense (DOD), which made the catastrophic financial decision to begin purchasing the JSF prior to the end of its development phase. 

Now, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has indicated that costs are set to rise substantially again.  According to an April 15, 2024, GAO report, total lifetime costs of the program will now exceed $2 trillion, or 17.7 percent more than the previous $1.7 trillion estimate in September 2023.

A portion of the increase was caused by inflation and the DOD’s new plan to operate the JSF until 2088, or 11 years longer than the prior estimate.  The GAO reported mixed results in the effort to reduce flying costs across the three variants of the JSF.  The Air Force is expected to pay $6.6 million annually to fly and maintain each F-35A, down from the $6.8 million it budgeted, but still $2.5 million more than the initial $4.1 million estimate.  The Marine Corps will spend $700,000 per year less than estimated for its F-35Bs, but $1.8 million more annually on its F-35Cs.  The Navy is set to spend $1.7 million less than its prior annual estimate on its F-35Cs.

But these are not savings due to increased efficiencies or lower development and construction costs; they can mostly be attributed to the DOD’s plan to fly the JSF less often.  The GAO report noted that the JSF Joint Program Office projected in 2020 that the aircraft would fly 382,376 hours annually.  This was reduced to 300,524 annual hours in 2023, a drop of nearly 82,000 flight hours, or 21.4 percent. 

The GAO has long reported on the failures of the JSF program.  According to the April 15, 2024, GAO report, “We have consistently found that the F-35 fleet is not meeting its availability goals, which are measured by mission capable rates (i.e., the percentage of time the aircraft can perform one of its tasked missions), despite increasing projected costs.  No F-35 variant met its performance goals for mission capable rates from fiscal years 2019 through 2023.”

All three versions of the JSF suffer from woeful readiness rates.  An April 15, 2024, Defense One article reported a mission capable rate of 51.9 percent for the F-35A, 59.7 percent for the F-35B, and 61.9 percent for the F-35C.

The JSF seems incapable of escaping the tailspin of high costs and poor performance.  In the meantime, the Air Force has begun accepting proposals for the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter, set to replace the F-22, with a price tag of “multiple hundreds of millions of dollars” per plane according to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.  As it plans for the future, the DOD must learn the lessons from its JSF failures.