Can we really afford this?
An October 2017 Government Accountability Office report details problems the services are having keeping the F-35 stealth fighter fleet ready for combat. One problem it highlighted was that, at a time when the Pentagon is desperate to ramp up production of new aircraft, the services have to wait an average of 172 days—nearly six months—to repair components for the F-35, when it should only take between 60 and 90 days.
While this aspect of the report garnered most of the headlines, the report reveals a much more fundamental and systemic problem involving most of the latest high-tech weapon systems. Defense contractors are creating complicated support systems for the increasingly complex weapon systems the Pentagon buys, which allows the contractors to secure long-term contracts for which they have no competition from other companies.
The F-35 serves as the ultimate example of this arrangement. Under the current plans, the American people will spend $ 406.5 billion for research, development, and procurement for a fleet of 2,456 F-35s.
That’s a staggering figure, but it pales in comparison to the costs to sustain the program. These costs are expected to top $ 1.2 trillion through 2060, the expected lifespan of the program. That’s around $ 30 billion per year. While the sustainment-to-acquisition cost ratio for the F-35 program is roughly equivalent to the historic average of 70:30, the way in which the Pentagon and the contractors reach the 70-percent figure adds more than simple financial costs to the program.