Air Force officials told lawmakers May 2 that while they continue to drive down the sustainment cost of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, it will be “multiple years” before it can reach the same cost per flying hour as an F-15EX.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee Thursday, Vice Adm. Mat Winter, the F-35 program executive officer, said the F-35 Joint Program Office is targeting a cost per flying hour of $34,000 by Fiscal Year 2024.

F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to the 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, released AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during a live-fire test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico on June 12, 2018. The Joint Operational Test Team conducted the missions as part of Block 3F Initial Operational Test and Evaluation.

The Pentagon has made a “stretch goal” to reach $25,000 by FY’ 25, which is included in the department’s F-35 Lifecycle Sustainment Plan, he added. However, Robert Daigle, director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) Office in the department, told the subcommittee that his office “doesn’t see a path” to get to that number in that timeframe.

“That’s a target and it’s not our projections for where we’re actually going to be,” he said in response to a line of questioning from Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), a colonel in the Army Reserves and subcommittee vice chair.

Daigle added that the CAPE office actually anticipates that after FY ’24, the F-35’s cost per flying hour will flatten, and then increase as the aircraft age and must be returned to the depot for maintenance.

Daigle told the subcommittee that CAPE currently projects that the F-15EX will operate at a cost-per-flying-hour of $29,000. By comparison, the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet operates at about $23,000 and the F-15E – as an older aircraft than the new EX model would be – operates at about $34,000 per flying hour.

That being said, Lockheed Martin [LMT] is “taking action to deliver on the $25,000 Cost Per Flight Hour goal by 2025 – and see a path to achieving this target,” said Michael Friedman, company spokesman in a Thursday email to Defense Daily. Lockheed is the prime contractor for the F-35.

The company has reduced its portion of the F-35’s cost per flying hour by about 15 percent since 2015, he noted. The production team has reduced the unit cost of the F-35 by more than 60 percent since the initial lot and remains on track to achieve an $80 million F-35A by 2020, he added. “Just as we’ve demonstrated in production, we are applying the same rigor and innovation to reduce sustainment costs to achieve our goals.”

Winter told reporters after the hearing that the $25,000 target cost sets a goal by which the program office and its partners can identify the elements that will allow it to reach a lower cost per flying hour by 2024. “Part of our LCSP’s real effort was identifying what are the true attributes and levers that reduce costs,” he said.

The $25,000 goal “will be very, very hard to meet,” he added. “But it’s FY ‘19 right now and we have a number of years.”

The cost issues, as the Government Accountability Office pointed out in a report last week, remain within the aircraft’s sustainment (Defense Daily, April 25). Air Combat Command Commander Gen. Mike Holmes expressed hope during the hearing that the F-35 team would meet those challenges, “but it will be multiple years to drive those sustainment costs down to where they match the F-15.”

As additional Joint Strike Fighters are bedded down at Air Force bases, those maintenance and sustainment costs will ramp up to pay for low-observable maintenance facilities and other F-35-specific needs, he added.

The labor cost is the JPO’s biggest cost increase, Winter said. The office has hit “a stagnant plateau” with Lockheed Martin, who is on average 600 parts behind what Winter needs on the production line every month, he noted. “The aircraft is going slower down the production line than I need it to be. That drives cost.”

The repair turnaround for the F-35 is almost 200 percent longer than it needs to be, he added. Normal turnaround time should be 45 to 90 days – right now, it’s 190 days on average. That’s because suppliers are also generating new parts for production for the commercial aviation industry, he noted.

The concerns over the F-35’s cost per flying hour were central to the subcommittee’s line of questioning over the Air Force and Defense Department’s decision to add new F-15EX fighter aircraft built by Boeing [BA] into the fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, and request less F-35s than originally anticipated, which Congress has already criticized (Defense Daily, April 5).

Air Force leadership emphasized that the F-35 remains the future of the Air Force’s fighter fleet, but that a mix of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft would be needed to get through the next few years while the F-35’s sustainment costs were drawn down.

Subcommittee members remain divided on support for the F-15EX decision. Former subcommittee chair Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) placed himself firmly in support of procuring more F-35s instead of investing in fourth-generation aircraft. Turner is now ranking member of the HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

Brown also appeared to position himself as a supporter of the F-35. Meanwhile, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) the subcommittee’s ranking member, was more supportive of adding Boeing’s aircraft to the fleet. If the Air Force chooses to procure new F-15s, they would be built at Boeing’s St. Louis facility.

Subcommittee Chair Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) pressed Air Force leadership on the reasoning behind the decision to buy new fourth-gen aircraft, and said that lawmakers had some “very big decisions ahead of us” on the subject.