F-35 costs falling, Pentagon estimates indicate

Acquisition of F-35 fighter planes will be less expensive, with development and procurement costs down 7.1 percent, a Defense Department assessment indicates.

The Select Acquisition Report, circulating on Friday but not yet released by the Pentagon, estimates that developing and maintaining the fleet of the planes, built by Lockheed Martin, will cost $1.182 trillion over the planes' expected 66-year useful lifespan.

It is a 7.8 percent increase from last year's cost estimate of the Defense Department's costliest program.The assessment also projects that 809 F-35s will be built for the U.S. military and its allies, compared to 764 projected in 2019.

The Pentagon also projects largely flat budgets,with minimal increases, through 2025, and 2,456 F-35s by 2025. The assessment was prepared prior to the coronavirus pandemic, which has slowed production of the plane.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole combat aircraft, and currently regarded as the world's superior fighter plane. It offers strike missions, electronic warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in three variants.

The U.S. Marines, Navy and Air Force each have a variant, and 13 international partners either have or have ordered versions for their own militaries. The United States intends to purchase 94 F-35s in Fiscal Year 2022, a reduction by nine from its original plan, 94 more in each of 2023 and 2024, and 96 in 2025.

The plane has had a series of costly problems which have hampered its use and prompted $1.4 billion in retrofitting of equipment, but the Defense Department assessment notes that Lockheed Martin's on-time delivery issues have improved, in addition to a reduction of design and software flaws.

Additionally, the per-plane costs are declining. It notes that the "unit flyaway cost" [the complete plane minus the engine] of the Air Force version of the plane fell by $12.1 million to $57.4 million.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in December, requires the Department of Defense to seek compensation from contractors for "costs related to the failure to deliver ready-for-issue spare parts" and better-identified sustainment cost data.

A General Accountability Office report to Congress in May said "the F-35 program produced more aircraft and negotiated lower prices in 2019."

"However, the program is not meeting standards aimed at ensuring consistent,high-quality products, and fielded aircraft do not meet reliability goals," the report said. "The cost to modernize aircraft systems went up about $1.5 billion [or 14 percent]since the program's May 2019 annual report to Congress."

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