Cars are expensive, and not just to purchase. Even if you own your car outright, it costs thousands each year in taxes, license fees and, most expensively, repairs. Car dealers make more money through their service and parts departments than they do selling new vehicles.
Now imagine that you had to keep the same car for years, even decades, and couldn’t trade it in on a new model. Think of what the repair bills would be in the later years.
Lockheed Martin has certainly thought about something similar to that. The defense contractor manufactures weapon systems for the U.S. military. But perhaps as important, it maintains those weapon systems and repairs them when they break down. That is proving to be especially financially rewarding when it comes to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Lockheed recently inked a $1.9 billion deal to “sustain and support the worldwide fleet of F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters in 2020,” as Garrett Reim writes in Flight Global. “To meet the needs of the growing F-35 fleet, the contract funds hiring industry sustainment experts for base and depot maintenance, pilot and maintainer training, and sustainment engineering efforts.”
The deal included an agreement to service future, as well as existing, F-35s. Selling this high-tech warranty seems like a great way for Lockheed to make plenty of money, but it doesn’t seem like such a great deal for taxpayers.
For example, Lockheed is certain to have plenty of work to do. The F-35 currently a “mission capable rate” of just 65 percent, far below the 80 percent that would be considered minimally acceptable. Both the contractor and military leaders insist they can get that reliability number up in the years ahead. We’ll see.
The F-35 was sold as a jet that could do it all: perform missions for three services, project American might around the world, and protect soldiers in combat. But so far, by trying to do everything well, it’s proven unable to do anything well. It’s too heavy, not stealthy enough, and its weapons systems don’t fire accurately.
Meanwhile, taxpayers have already purchased hundreds of F-35s, although the jet has always been over budget and underperforming. More are on the way. Last year, the Pentagon agreed to purchase 478 more F-35s, a deal that will cost Americans $34 billion (just for the planes) in the years ahead.
It’s no surprise this deal may make military leaders nervous. “The cost of sustaining the F-35 has been a growing concern for leaders across the Defense Department, from F-35 joint program executive officer Vice Adm. Mat Winter to Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment,” Military Times reported two years ago. “Right now, we can’t afford the sustainment costs we have on the F-35. And we’re committed to changing that,” Lord said at the time. That promise to cut costs remains unfilled. It still costs about $35,000 per hour to fly an F-35, a price Lockheed promises to reduce to $25,000 in five years. Again, we’ll see.
In the future, it’s not clear that the federal government will be able to spend this much on a single weapon platform. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2029 interest on money we’ve already borrowed could total almost $1 trillion. The country needs a reliable weapon at a price we can actually afford.
Luckily, there’s an answer already in the skies. The F-15 is a successful weapon that the Air Force deploys when it needs to project force around the world. Meanwhile, the F-35 is being used to destroy piles of enemy small arms; a job that could be accomplished by smaller, less expensive aircraft.
The Air Force is interested in buying more of the latest version, the F-15X, and it should do so. These more effective, less expensive jets may be crucial to national defense while the Pentagon struggles to even get the F-35 into the air.
Taxpayers are buying what is effectively a warranty on the F-35 (and an expensive one at that). But the F-15 may prove to be the real insurance policy, by handling the missions the F-35 can’t.