The Air Force has agreed to purchase 478 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from Lockheed Martin for an estimated $34 billion. This announcement represents a reduction in cost for the most advanced fighter on the planet and is sure to reignite debate about the proper makeup of America’s fighter forces.
Last year, the U.S. Air Force caused controversy among defense officials when they announced plans to begin procurement of new F-15 airframes for the first time in decades. These new F-15EXs represent a significant jump in capability over America’s existing F-15 fleets thanks to years and billions of dollars worth of development invested by American allies in places like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but critics were quick to point out that, while technically the most successful air superiority fighter in the world, even these updated F-15s lack the stealth and data fusion capabilities of the newer F-35.
F-15EX supporters, however, point to the need to procure more jets per year than F-35s can be delivered, the far lower operating cost of an F-15 as compared to the F-35, and of course, a lower procurement cost. That last point, however, has now been made moot, as Lockheed Martin and Pentagon just penned a new deal for 478 more F-35s and the bargain price of below $80 million per plane — which is notably the cost of each F-15EX.
“The $34 billion agreement for F-35 low-rate initial production of lots 12-14 includes the delivery of 478 F-35 aircraft,” Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord announced at the Pentagon Tuesday morning.
“This agreement represents our continued commitment to reduce F-35 costs aggressively, incentivize industry to meet required performance and deliver advanced capabilities to our warfighters at the best value to taxpayers,” she added.
Costs won’t drop below $80 million per F-35 immediately. The program is expected to reach the $80 million mark with Lot 13, slated for delivery in 2021. By the following year, costs are expected to reduce once again to $77.9 million per aircraft. This price reduction probably won’t kill off the F-15EX in the minds of Air Force officials, however, as there are a number of other issues still looming that make the F-15 seem like a reasonable purchase. The F-35, for instance, costs far more per hour to operate than the F-15, at $44,000 per hour and $29,000 per hour respectively. Also, unlike the F-35 which may remain in “testing” for more than another year, the F-15 doesn’t have any bugs that still need to be worked out of its system.
Earlier this month, it was announced that full-scale production of the F-35 would be postponed again, this time for as much as 13 months, as officials work to address issues with the aircraft’s Joint Simulation Environment testing.
“We actually just have signed out of the [Joint Program Office] earlier this week a program deviation report that documented expected schedule threshold breach in the Milestone C full-rate production decision milestone of up to 13 months. So what this is the result of – and I follow this very carefully – is the fact that we are not making as quick progress on the Joint Simulation Environment integrating the F-35 into it,” Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment said at the time.