PARIS --- The Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year 2020 earmarks $11.2 billion for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, $1.51 billion less than in FY2018 and $368.3 million less than in FY2019 (see red highlighting in graphic).
After increasing slightly between FY2018 and FY2019 (+3 aircraft), the number of F-35s the Pentagon plans to order in FY2020 will drop by 15 aircraft. Specifically, the US Air Force plans to cut its purchase by eight aircraft, from 56 to 48, and the US Marine Corps will cut its F-35B order by an even dozen, from 22 to ten aircraft.
Only the US Navy will increase its purchase of F-35C Carrier Variants, by 5 units, from 15 aircraft in FY 2019 to 20 in FY 2020, while also maintaining its order for 24 F-18E/F Super Hornets an in the previous year.
These cuts are all the more unexpected that they are accompanied by new or increased orders for other tactical aircraft.
The US Air Force, for example, is buying eight new F-15EX fighters, a variant of the F-15QA developed for Qatar, at a unit cost of $80 million excluding development costs (or about $125 million each -- in FY2020 only -- to amortize development costs).
In parallel, the US Navy is repeating its FY2019 purchase of 24 Boeing F-18E Super Hornets – 4 times as many as F-35Cs – and together these two services send a message of disengagement from the F-35 program.
F-35 unit costs keep rising despite promised savings
Contradicting promises often repeated by Lockheed Martin and the F-35 Joint Program Office, the Pentagon Comptroller’s report on Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System, also released March 12 as part of the FY2020 budget, shows that F-35 unit costs are increasing in FY2020. (highlighted in yellow)
As clearly shown by the table at top, excerpted from that same report, the average F-35 unit cost in FY2019 was $108.78 million ($10.117 billion divided by 93 aircraft), but will increase to $117.6 million ($9.175 million divided by 78 aircraft) in FY2020 – an increase of $8.81 million in a single year.
This contradicts the recurring claims that the F-35 unit cost continues to drop, and that it will soon attain $80 million.
Specifically for the F-35A, the FY2020 budget request earmarks $4.929 billion for 48 aircraft, or $102.7 million each -- $8.7 million more than the $94 million unit cost in FY2019.
In addition, the cost of post-delivery repairs, modification and upgrades are mounting fast, and jump 45% in FY2020 to $424.5 million, compared to $295.1 million in FY2019 and just $89.9 million in FY2018 (highlighted in blue).
Finally, the F-35 program’s R&D costs are due to increase by $444 million in FY2020 (outlined in green), to over $1.6 billion, even though the program’s development phase ended in April.
Clearly, the FY2020 confirms that the Pentagon is taking steps to find other baskets to place its tactical air eggs:
-- The Air Force is cutting its orders by 8 F-35s and buying 8 F-15EX instead;
-- The US Navy is buying only five F-35Cs, but 24 F-18 Super Hornets;
-- The Marine Corps is cutting a dozen F-35Bs from its budget
In parallel, F-35 costs are increasing instead of dropping, and the cost of post-delivery repairs and modifications have more than quadrupled in just two years.