At $130 Million A Plane, Critics Question The Cost Of The F-35

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In a mile-long building on the edge of Fort Worth, Texas, an assembly line is taking shape to build the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed Martin, which got the contract to build the jet back in 2001, is slowly cranking up production. It's hard to keep a plane current, when it takes so many years to develop.

But Lockheed's Kevin McCormack says the F-35 is designed to change as technology evolves.

"It's essentially a flying computer so we want to take advantage of what's going to be out there in the future and put it on board this airplane in a cost-effective manner," he says.

Many planes already rely heavily on computer code, but the F-35 is supposed to up the ante. With 9 million lines of code, it's also open to faster chips and better software as they become available.

But many budget hawks and defense geeks say the problem is that this plane just keeps getting more expensive. Right now, the cost of the Air Force version is nearly $130 million a plane. The Marine version, which flies like a jet but can land like a helicopter, is more than $160 million.

Lockheed says you shouldn't look at today's price because the cost will come down when this assembly line ramps up to full production later in the decade. Lockheed's Mike Rein says, as long as the militaries of the world keep buying planes, the average price will come down to $65 million per plane.

"You have to also look at the costs to maintain the platforms that this aircraft is replacing," he says. "Many of the countries are already seeing that their fourth-generation airplanes, some of them 40 or 50 years old, are extremely expensive to maintain."

Volume Would Cut Cost

But to keep the price of this new plane down, Lockheed has to sell a lot of them — about 3,000. The military will get a volume discount. But right now, it's paying a high price.

Many say this program has set a new standard for pricing complexity, even for the Pentagon. Winslow Wheeler, a defense expert with the Project on Government Oversight, says Lockheed uses a pricing vocabulary that masks rising costs.

"Flyaway costs, non-recurring and recurring costs. Lots of gobblygook and they'll say that comes to a number like 60, 70 million dollars, and it's complete baloney," he says.

Wheeler says if you figure in all the research and fixes to the design, the price rises out of sight. No matter what the actual cost, this issue has turned into a public relations battle for the military.

The Pentagon defends the F-35 in public, while chastising Lockheed over costs and delays.

Too Many Tasks?

F-35 critics say the basic concept was faulty from the start. This one plane is supposed to do the jobs of as many as 10 older airframes. Wheeler says the F-35 is stretched between too many tasks.

"They also made it a short takeoff and vertical landing airplane," he said. "That has lots of design requirements that contradict what you need for either a fighter or a bomber."

Wheeler says the result is a plane that is mediocre at everything.

Questions about the F-35's cost and performance have created a new international sport: trashing the plane online.

It's a particularly popular game in the eight partner nations scheduled to buy hundreds of F-35s in the coming years.

Peter Goon of the think tank Air Power Australia says data on F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter or JSF, show that it's unable to achieve its main goal — competing with similar advanced fighters from China and Russia.

"Other countries are doing what they should be doing — that is producing capabilities to defend their sovereign nation. But unfortunately, the capabilities they are presenting now are far superior to the JSF," he says.

This past year, Australia said it would delay some of its F-35 purchases in order to save money. And recently, the Canadian government threw its purchase into question.

The Pentagon says budget numbers can't describe the huge return it expects from this plane.

Sure, it's expensive, says Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Gorenc, "but it's also a procurement package that will put iron on the ramp for the next 50 years."

The growing cost of the program may be tempting for a Congress looking for budget reductions. But the military's bizarre procurement system could also protect the F-35: If the U.S. orders fewer planes, it will pay more for each. So it may be too expensive to buy and too expensive to cut.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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