$1.7 Trillion Burden? F-35 Fighter Has High Maintenance Cost, Says Report

The three variants have advanced stealth characteristics, have a single engine and single seat and can go supersonic. The only difference is in their role.

$1.7 Trillion Burden? F-35 Fighter Has High Maintenance Cost, Says Report

The F-35 is indeed the most advanced fighter aircraft on the planet.

New Delhi:

The F-35 Lightning Strike II, an American multirole, stealth fighter, is reportedly the most advanced modern fighter aircraft in the world. The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme of the US envisaged creating an interoperable fighter platform, that incorporates modern stealth technology and can be used by the Air Force, Marine Corps and the Navy.

F-35 Lightning Strike II, developed and manufactured by Lockheed Martin, has three variants: F-35A for the Air Force, F-35B for the Marine Corps and F-35C for the Navy.

The three variants have advanced stealth characteristics, have a single engine and single seat and can go supersonic. The only difference is in their role. The F-35A is capable of taking off from an air force runway, the F-35B can hover and vertically land on amphibious attack ships of the Marine Corps and the F-35C, with a wide wingspan, is used for aircraft carrier landings by the US Navy. 

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The JSF seeks to replace other ageing aircraft with a single fighter and save costs, an idea that theoretically seems logical. In reality, it has now become the most expensive weapons programme in US history because of several problems.

A $1.7 Trillion Burden?

The F-35 is indeed the most advanced fighter aircraft on the planet. Its stealth technology, like special radar coating and very few hardpoints, makes it difficult for enemies to detect it on their radar. The fighter jet has a radar-cross section of 0.005 metres square, almost the size of a golf ball. Despite its advanced features, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), in its report, said it would take at least $1.7 Trillion to purchase, operate and sustain the aircraft in its 66-year life cycle due to high maintenance costs and developmental delays.

The GAO, in its recent report, said the Block 4 development programme, the latest secret plan to modernize the aircraft is experiencing cost overruns. "Block 4 was originally defined as 66 capabilities and estimated to cost $10.6 billion, with development expected to be completed in fiscal year 2026. In May 2023, GAO reported that Block 4 costs had grown to $16.5 billion and the effort was now estimated to be completed in 2029," the report said.

"Department of Defense's (DOD) report to Congress on the Block 4 effort does not distinguish higher-than-expected costs for previously planned Block 4 capabilities from growth due to adding capabilities. Consequently, Congress does not have a clear picture of the reason for the growing F-35 modernization costs," it said. 

"The program has announced plans to upgrade the F-35's engine and is exploring options to modernize the power and thermal management system that is used to cool aircraft subsystems that generate heat. The current cooling system is overtasked, requiring the engine to operate beyond its design parameters. The extra heat is increasing the wear on the engine, reducing the engine's life, and adding a projected $38 billion in maintenance costs over the life of the aircraft," the GAO said in its findings. 

'Too Costly'

The US has ordered over 2,700 F-35s and around 900 have been procured. One F-35 costs approximately $100,000 (Rs 8.03 crore) and the per-hour flight cost is around $40,000. The cost to operate an F-16's one-hour sortie is $26,000. Since 2018, the modernization has cost increased by $6.5 billion. The GAO, in a report published in September, found that the F-35's mission capable rate - the percentage of time the aircraft can perform one of its tasked missions-was about 55 per cent in March 2023, far below program goals."

The September 2023 report said there is a backlog in spare parts. In 2019, around 4,300 spare parts were waiting at depots or with the original equipment manufacturers, it was mainly due to the F-35's limited capacity to repair parts. New F-35s have been added to the fleet and by March 2023, the number increased to 10,000. "Due to this growing list of parts awaiting repair, the F-35 Joint Program Office has purchased new parts instead of repairing the parts it already has in inventory," the report said, adding, "This is a practice that program officials do not believe is a sustainable solution. According to DOD officials, this method keeps aircraft flying. However, it has resulted in higher sustainment costs because buying new parts generally costs more than repairing existing parts."

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The Israeli Air Force, in 2022, grounded its F-35 fleet over issues in the pilot ejection system. The concern over the ejection seat made the aircraft unsuitable to fly until a thorough investigation was conducted. The grounding of F-35s came after a US notice that the explosive charge system that ejects the seat had serious issues. The issue was highlighted in 2015 when an urgent memo on ejection seats raised the issue.

According to a non-partisan 2023 report by the Congressional Budget Office, the full mission availability of the F-35s has seen a dip in availability, though, the Air Force version had a higher Full Mission Availability Rate, but the report doesn't state the reason behind the dip. An April 2022 report from GAO helps to answer some questions. "A leading driver of the F-35 not being mission capable has been engine issues," the report said. Another report from last year states that 821 open deficiencies were found in the F-35 program. They were divided into two categories: Critical deficiencies jeopardizing safety, and security. Category 2 deficiencies are those that could impede or constrain successful mission accomplishment. Five deficiencies fall in the serious category.

Fuel tube vibration malfunction was identified in December 2022 when in Texas, an F-35 crashed and the pilot safely ejected. The aircraft pitched forward during vertical descent and crashed. F-35A gun blast panel cracking was reported in newer variants, the report said, adding that "This cracking is a result of higher than designed for pressure conditions when firing the gun."

The objective of the Joint Strike Fighter is to have a common platform, but the requirements of the forces vary. Many changes in F-35 are antithetical to the programme's sole objective. An F-35B disappeared in September and was off the radar after the pilot ejected due to malfunction. 

Some aviation experts say the F-35 may not be the ideal choice for a dogfight but it is capable of detecting the enemy aircraft before a dogfight, by going undetected and firing a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile to avoid it.