What's The Price Tag For a Production F-35?

What is the true unit cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)? The first operational USAF F-35 on its delivery flight to Eglin Air...

What is the true unit cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)?

The first operational USAF F-35 on its delivery flight to Eglin Air Force Base in July 2011.

It's tough to say. The JSF program office has one estimate. The Pentagon's Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation has another.

They don't match, won't be released to the public until they do, and aren't final anyway until the jets begin to come off the line in steady production, a JSF program official said.

And things may change. The Defense Department is looking at altering production plans as it builds the 2013 budget, and Congress may change things in the 2012 budget.

One thing is clear: The price tag for a production model F-35A will not be
$65 million in 2010 dollars.

That's the average per-plane cost repeatedly given by officials with F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin - for example, Tom Burbage, a top F-35 official, speaking to reporters in Australia last month.

Weeks later, a Lockheed spokeswoman gave the same figure - but said it was 2011 dollars.

"This is in line with current fourth generation fighter costs, which do not include targeting pods, jammers, decoy systems, [Electronic Warfare] equipment, fuel tanks, infrared search and track, night vision devices, helmet and other systems," Lockheed spokeswoman Laurie Quincy said.

An official at the JSF program office said Lockheed's $65 million price tag claim is "disingenuous" because it does not include the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine that powers the jet. The program office has repeatedly asked the company to stop using the $65 million figure, he said.

An industry source denied that and said Lockheed's $65 million figure includes the engines and expressed dismay that the JSF official was be unaware of that fact.

He said the cost is averaged over total projected sales of 3,163 aircraft.

The U.S. currently plans to buy a total of 2,443 F-35s.

The engine will cost roughly

$11 million once in full-rate production, said William Storey, an analyst with Teal Group.

"The goal is to get unit prices down to around $10 million, so $11 million seems reasonable for the long run," Storey said.

The Air Force's 2011 budget shows that engines for low-rate initial production F-35A cost $13 million apiece.

Pratt & Whitney spokeswoman Stephanie Duvall declined to confirm the price of the engine, saying that the data is "confidential information shared between [Pratt & Whitney] and our customers."

Even if the JSF official was right, and Lockheed's $65 million price tag does not include the engine, the unit cost of the F-35A is comparable to other aircraft.

That's because other components, such as the sensors, are part of the contractor's price for the jet, said David Rockwell, another Teal Group analyst.

"Radar and sensors are almost always contractor-furnished, and are for the F-35 and F/A-18," Rockwell said. "Only very rarely will the [Defense Department] require [Government Furnished Equipment] sensors, and even the suggestion rarely gets past the RfP stage."

At $76 million, the jet comes with all of its myriad sensor and data links while adding stealth capability, which is not available on older fourth-generation aircraft like the F/A-18E/F or EA-18G.

Even at $80 million, the F-35 would offer more bang for the buck, said Richard Aboulafia, another Teal Group analyst. The stealth, sensors, range and data links give the F-35 a huge edge in combat, he said.

Even the cost of the long-in-production Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet can be stated in several ways.

A Teal Group analysis based on the 2011 budget found that the recurring flyaway cost of the Super Hornet was $60.3 million, including $40.2 million for the airframe and contractor-furnished electronics; $8.4 million for the engines and accessories; $6.2 million for contractor-furnished avionics; $1.7 million for government-furnished avionics; plus some some ancillary costs.

That's the same number given by Navy budget documents.

It doesn't include certain hardware such as the AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) targeting pod, jammers and decoys.

Neither the Teal Group nor the Navy matches Boeing's figures.

Boeing spokesman Philip Carder said in an email: "A Go-to-war Super Hornet costs approximately $53M in [calendar year]-10 dollars under the multi-year III contract. That does include: Engines; APG-79 [Active Electronically Scanned Array] radar; [Electronic Warfare] Suite; ATFLIR; external fuel tanks; and [Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System]."

Teal's Rockwell said he estimates the ATFLIR pod costs around $3 million with initial spares.

"The Lot 5 [full-rate production] contract seemed to award about $2.6 million per pod in December 2006 allowing an additional 20 percent for initial spares, and $2.9 million per pod in December 2007," Rockwell said. "ATFLIR has required considerable support funding, and we suspect this has been figured in to initial costs to some extent."

The Super Hornet carries a host of other hardware into battle but Rockwell said he has not yet completed his analysis of those numbers.

"I'm working on IDECM [integrated defensive electronic countermeasures], common onboard jammer and other [electronic countermeasures] right now."

Nigel Pittaway contributed to this report from Melbourne.

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