The U.S. Air Force hopes to wring out enough savings from its new F-35 Lightning II fleet to allow the stealthy fighter jet’s sustainment costs to match those of legacy fighters, the service’s chief of staff said March 29.

High sustainment costs for the Lockheed Martin [LMT]-built fifth-generation fighter “are a major concern right now” and “have got to go down” to be affordable, Gen. David Goldfein told the Defense Writers Group. “We’re not going to stop until we can get those costs down to, within reason, close to what a fourth-generation fighter costs to sustain.” 

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. Photo: Air Force.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. Photo: Air Force.

Goldfein is encouraged that top Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, have made reducing sustainment costs a priority.

Their effort “gives me a level of optimism in this program going forward that we’re going to be able to get to a pretty good target,” he said.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, F-35 sustainment for the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy is expected to cost $1.12 trillion over 60 years. But a Pentagon official indicated in October that the Department of Defense was launching a year-long “deep dive” to look for ways to cut the jet’s sustainment and production costs (Defense Daily, Oct. 23, 2017).

Goldfein refuted published reports that the Air Force is considering cutting its planned purchase of 1,763 jets to save money. He said “it is way too early to be talking about” any potential reductions because the procurement will continue many years into the future.

“It’s just not true that there’s any intent on our part to go one aircraft below the current program of record,” he said. ”That is what we require today to be able to actually accomplish the [national defense] strategy as it is currently written.”

On budget matters, Goldfein said it is too early to tell whether the Air Force will need to seek congressional approval to reprogram some of the money it receives from the fiscal year 2018 omnibus appropriations act. Although the measure was recently signed into law almost halfway through the fiscal year, the Air Force closely followed the legislation’s progress and prepared for a delay in its enactment.

“Right now, we’re actually in pretty good shape because we’ve been looking at this the entire time,” he said.

Turning to space, Goldfein welcomed the March 22 Senate confirmation of Maj. Gen. David Thompson to be vice chief of Air Force Space Command. He said that Thompson, who will be promoted to lieutenant general and be based at the Pentagon, will ease the heavy workload of Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the commander of the Colorado-based command.

“At last count, I think [Raymond] had 31, 32 trips to Washington, D.C., since January,” Goldfein said. “I really need him focused … on running his command, and he needs time to do that. Having his vice commander forward to be able to take on a lot of that responsibility is going to be really helpful.”