Even as one version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history, could soon be ready for combat, the effort is besieged with fresh problems about its price tag and the aircraft’s war-fighting capabilities.
The Defense Department plans to buy around 2,440 F-35s, including 14 development aircraft, for an estimated price tag of $400 billion The projected cost for operating and maintaining those planes is somewhere between $859 billion and $1.5 trillion in coming years.
Earlier this week the Marine Corps, which intends to buy about 350 of the F-35B variant, announced it had finished testing its model and filed the paperwork necessary to dub the jet combat ready—an important milestone for a weapons effort running years behind schedule and that has experienced cost overruns of around 70 percent.
Once the jet has received the “initial operational capability” stamp, the Marine Corps can deploy it like any other aircraft in its arsenal. The first deployment is slated to take place in 2017, with a unit moving to Iwakuni, Japan.
The service is waiting for Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford to sign off on the decision. The four-star’s been preoccupied, though, having been confirmed Wednesday night by the Senate as the next Chair of the Joint Chief of Staffs.
But Dunford could make his fellow Marines wait a while, as he recently indicated the eventual size of the pricey aircraft fleet could change due to budget constraints.
“Given the evolving defense strategy and the latest Defense Planning Guidance, we are presently taking the newest strategic foundation and analyzing whether 2,443 aircraft is the correct number,” he wrote in response to questions asked by the Senate Armed Services Committee in advance of his confirmation hearing.
“Until the analysis is complete, we need to pursue the current scheduled quantity buy to preclude creating an overall near-term tactical fighter shortfall,” he added.
In addition to the thousands of aircraft the U.S. is expected to buy, allies are projected to purchase hundreds of F-35s, which, in turn, has helped drive down costs.
Yet some allies who committed to buying the fifth-generation fighters have cut back their orders or have reconsidered their plans.
Earlier this month Australia scrapped plans to purchase the F-35B because the ships required to carry them needed too many modifications. Canada is also rethinking whether to buy the jet at all.
Meanwhile, Italy has reduced its planned purchase of 131 planes to 90 and the Netherlands whittled down its order of 85 aircraft to 37.
Questions also still remain about the fighter’s ability to win in combat.
A scathing five-page brief obtained by War Is Boring said the F-35 lost to an F-16, the aircraft it is supposed to replace, during a mock aerial dogfight last January. Pentagon and industry officials pushed back, saying the leaked report lacked the proper context.
This week Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation, told Breaking Defense that the aircraft went up against nine enemy aircraft.
“It went very poorly for the bad guys,” he said.