The official in charge of purchasing military hardware for the US Air Force suggested slashing the total number of Lockheed Martin F-35 jets for the service by more than half late last year, according to two former defense officials involved in the discussions who spoke with CNN. The news comes as Congressional criticism of the most expensive weapons program in US history grows.
Will Roper, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics for the last three years of the Trump administration, recommended that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, former Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord, and others reduce the number of jets purchased from 1,763 jets to about 800, the officials said. Roper questioned the cost of the jet, even after former President Donald Trump touted it as “invisible” and the greatest fighter jet in the world.
Instead, Roper threw his support behind the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, a secretive, sixth-generation aircraft designed with digital engineering, the officials said. He revealed last October at the Air, Space & Cyber Conference that a full-scale prototype had flown and “broken a lot of records in the doing.”
Though the plan was not accepted the revelation come as the F-35 program faces growing scrutiny, with increased skepticism from members of Congress and suggestions within the Pentagon that all is not well with the military’s prized program.
“There is recognition from everyone involved in this program — from the Air Force and from everyone in Congress — that this is a challenge. This program is not working out the way we wanted it to,” said a source with direct knowledge of the F-35 program. According to the source, an Air Force official said in a closed door meeting, “At this point, we paid for ‘outstanding.’ We got ‘very good.'”
In this case, “very good” comes with a staggering price tag.
The total cost over the life of the F-35 program is estimated to be $1.7 trillion, according to the Defense Department’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation. The vast majority of that money — $1.27 trillion — is sustainment costs, not the cost of buying the jets, but the costs to keep them flying.
Any cuts would have huge ramifications
The military plans to purchase nearly 2,500 F-35s in total. A reduction in the Air Force purchase to approximately 800 jets could potentially reduce sustainment costs by some $400 billion. A cut that large would affect not only Lockheed Martin, but an industrial base across the country that supports the manufacture of the aircraft. A company executive said at a House Armed Services Committee Hearing in late-April that the US supply chain is more than 1,800 companies, of which about 1,000 are small or disadvantaged businesses.
Ellen Lord, the former chief of Pentagon acquisitions under the Trump administration, said there is a debate within the Pentagon about how to prioritize the mature F-35 program against the unproven NGAD. Lord was one of those in the department to whom Roper suggested cutting the Air Force’s F-35 purchase.
Speaking with CNN, she emphasized the importance of the overall F-35 program, especially its interoperability with key allies and partners.
“It’s important to realize the difference between one prototype that has shown potential and the ability to guarantee a product that can generate multiple aircraft per month. We must be very careful not to discard a concept that has been built up over time,” she said. “The debate is about the degree to which you can reduce the F-35 to put money into NGAD. Right now, [the F-35] is performing very, very well for the Air Force, Navy, and the Marines. The pilots love it when they go downrange.”
But Lord said the sustainment costs of the fighter must come down.
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said the service is still “fully committed” to the F-35. At the same time, she said the Air Force is working to find “the fighter force mix that best meets the challenges of the highly contested environment.”
“In addition to the aircraft we are procuring now, we are looking at affordable capacity and capability for the future and determining where we should invest our R&D money, using a digital approach, so we have the right fighter mix 15-20 years from now,” Stefanek said in a statement to CNN.
In its latest report on F-35 sustainment released last month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the program was projected to be $6 billion short in the year 2036 alone. The problem is sharpest for the Air Force, where the GAO found that the estimated cost of the F-35s was 47% higher than what the Air Force said it could afford.
“The services have a plane that they cannot afford to fly the way they want to fly, at least in the long run,” Maurer said at the House Armed Services Committee hearing about the F-35 last month.
F-35 program plagued by problems
The program, which will mark its 20th anniversary this October, has not yet completed its testing or entered full production, despite being operational in the field, and it has been plagued by cost overruns and delays for years, including a shortage of 800 engines by 2030. Across the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, the F-35 remains well below its target full mission capable rate, which is the rate at which it can perform all of its intended missions. The Navy F-35 is fully mission capable only 7% of the time, according to the GAO.
“It’s more expensive than we expected it to be. It’s taking longer than we expected it to take. The engine breaks down more quickly than we expected it to and is more expensive and time-consuming to fix than we expected it to be,” said Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, speaking with CNN. “We do not yet have the full capability that has been promised in terms of what the F-35 can do.”
Brett Ashworth, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, said the company still sees strong support for the F-35. “Recently the Chief of Staff of the Air Force called the F-35 the cornerstone of the U.S. Air Force fighter fleet. The importance of the F-35 to the US Air Force was highlighted by recent deployments to the CENTCOM area of responsibility in which the Air Force flew more than 1,300 sorties, completing their mission and returning the pilots home safely every time,” he said in a statement to CNN.
Dramatically reducing the purchase of the country’s latest fighter aircraft is not without precedent. In 1997, the Air Force planned to purchase more than 400 Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors. At the time, the stealth Raptor was being developed as the most advanced fighter jet in the world. But spiraling costs led to the purchase of only 187 aircraft before the production line was shut down.
The Air Force acknowledged similar problems with the cost of the F-35 in response to the GAO report. “Air Force officials told us that, as a result, the only remaining options for their meeting their affordability constraints are to reduce the total number of F-35A aircraft they plan to purchase, or to reduce the aircraft’s planned flying hours,” the GAO report stated.
In January, acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller called the F-35 a “piece of …” and said, “We’ve created a monster,” in comments made just days before he left office. A month later, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown referenced the F-35’s costs to operate when he likened it to a “Ferrari” and said its use should be moderated. Brown called to develop a “fifth-gen minus” aircraft. In March, Rep. Smith was far more blunt in his assessment, saying he wants to stop “throwing money down that particular rathole.”
F-35 program has some staunch supporters
Rep. Donald Norcross, a member of the House Armed Services committee, told CNN that it will be difficult to reduce the cost of a program that has completed much of its design and development, even as he called the jet “remarkable.”
“The reality is that the more mature a platform is, the unknown areas where you could potentially bring down the cost narrow, and we’re facing that right now, that “We’re not going to be able to reduce cost on a mature program as much as we potentially will need to,” he said. “Unless we see substantial improvement or a pathway forward, then you have to look at what we’re able to do — what we can afford — and is there a better platform to do it with.”
The F-35 program still has its staunch supporters in Congress and the Pentagon.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin supports the “critically important program,” said chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby Monday, while adding that the problems are being worked through. “The department remains committed to the F-35 going forward, as do many of our allies and partners.”
His comments echoed those of Brigadier General David Abba, director of the Air Force’s F-35 Integration Office. “The United States Air Force is absolutely committed to the F-35,” Abba said at the House Armed Services Committee hearing two weeks ago, though he acknowledged “difficult decisions” may be ahead if the sustainment costs aren’t reduced.
Meanwhile, Rep. Don Bacon called the jet “the most significant and consequential military modernization for the United States, our allies, and freedom-loving nations around the world,” adding that the F-35’s performance is “unmatched.” Rep. Blake Moore, a fellow Republican, said at the hearing, “This plane can simply not be beat.”
Lord, the former Pentagon chief of acquisitions, said there is a balance between the program’s critics and its advocates. She cautioned, “We need to be very thoughtful with what one prototype has demonstrated versus what one proven aircraft can do.”