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Slower US F-35A purchases piles $27bn onto total fighter jet bill

Economies of scale, in reverse

The UK's sole F-35B in flight. Crown copyright
An F-35B in flight. Crown copyright

Slower purchases of the F-35 fighter jet have piled $27bn on top of the cost of buying the ridiculously expensive aircraft, according to reports.

The Defense News website reports that the “estimated total acquisition cost of the F-35 program” increased by seven per cent in one year, from $379bn to $406.5bn. This figure covers the purchase of 1,763 F-35As for the US Air Force.

The price rise includes inflation and is said to have been blamed on a lower purchase rate by the USAF than planned, which is now down to 60 aircraft per year from the original rate of 80. In turn, the full rollout of F-35s across the USAF has been extended by six years.

The UK is buying 138 F-35s in total, the majority of which will be F-35Bs. Nobody can be sure about this, however, because the Ministry of Defence hasn’t ruled out an F-35A purchase as well. Early production F-35Bs cost around $122m each, according to Lockheed Martin’s own estimates. With F-35As coming in at $94.6m each, that price is now in the region of $101.2m per jet.

As we reported in May, the MoD has signed contracts to buy a total of 27 F-35Bs until the year 2023, which is when Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35, appears to be going into full scale production. This appears to be a decision made in the hope of taking advantage of economies of scale once the design is frozen and mass production kicks in. With the US scaling back, however, and causing its own prices to rise, there is little doubt foreign customers will also be hit with price rises in turn – including the UK.

Taking the F-35A price rises as a guide, the price per airframe of each F-35B could now be $131.4m each. This will put increasing strain on Britain’s defence budget, which has a perilously slim margin for currency fluctuations and general unpredicted spending increases. In April this year the MoD paid Lockheed’s UK arm £64m ($82.5m) in a single transaction for a “single use military equipment asset under construction”, which may or may not be the upfront purchase cost of one F-35B.

Of the three models of F-35 available – A, B, and C – the latest figures from the US only cover F-35As. However, given the large number of common parts between each model, it is reasonable to assume that inflated costs for the F-35A will have a knock-on effect on the F-35B and F-35C.

F-35As are land-only fighters; F-35Bs are short take off and vertical landing aircraft (STOVL), best used from non-traditional aircraft carriers and short, improvised landing strips; F-35Cs are pure carrier-based fighters fitted with “cat and trap” gear that the other two models lack.

Britain’s F-35Bs will eventually be flown from new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is currently on sea trials off the coast of Scotland. She is accompanied by two Type 23 frigates, so-called “escort” warships optimised for anti-submarine warfare.

It is feared that Russia will try and obtain sensitive acoustic data from the carrier by sneaking a submarine into the trials area. That acoustic data can be used to precisely locate the “Big Lizzy” while she is at sea and ultimately be used to launch torpedoes at her. ®

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