F-35B Unit Costs Hits $300 Million
By Taylor Marvin
Aviation Week reporter Bill Sweetman does the math and determines that adding STOVL capability brings the Marines’ F-35B’s unit cost to over $270 million. At Information Dissemination, naval analyst Raymond Pritchett notes that the true unit cost is probably closer to $300 million, and makes a good point about the F-35B’s political prospects:
“If the F-35B was a separate program today and not integrated with the rest of the Joint Strike Fighter program, during these times of budget cuts does anyone honestly believe a unique Marine Corps VSTOL stealth fighter aircraft would survive the accountants? As part of the JSF program, the F-35B will almost certainly will survive. As a unique program – even if it was less expensive, on cost, and on schedule – Congress would have probably canceled it today.
So while I think it is safe to say the Marine Corps paid more for STOVL by participating in the JSF program, I think it is also true to suggest the Marine Corps also paid the extra cost as a form of insurance from the politics of Washington.”
As I’ve argued before, the F-35B’s ability to fly off LHDs is a powerful force multiplier. This ability will likely be especially important in the looming era of American military budget austerity — because the current Wasp class and future America class LHDs are cheaper to operate than Nimitz and future Gerald R. Ford class CVNs, the ability to project competitive naval air power without committing a CVN will give the US Navy increased flexibility and future cost reductions, if used wisely. This doesn’t automatically justify the ballooning cost of the F-35B — especially consider that the USAF and USN’s F-35A and F-35C variants are largely on schedule and budget — but it is an argument for continuing the program, despite its jaw-dropping expense.
Of course, this debate is entirely academic: the F-35B is unlikely to ever get cut entirely unless it runs into some unforeseen and insurmountable technical barrier. Eliminating the F-35B would automatically balloon F-35A and C unit costs, threatening the political viability of the entire program. Given that the only real alternative to the JSF is upping buys of aging and increasingly uncompetitive F-15Es or potentially SEs and F/A-18E/Fs, Congress clearly isn’t going to threaten the core F-35 program even if its price continues to grow. The entire idea of a common airframe equally suited for the Air Force and Navy multirole mission and Marine STOVL seem to have been wishful thinking from the beginning. But two decades into JSF it’s what we’re getting, and it’s time to make the best of it.
Video via Defense Tech.