The follow-on development phase for the U.S. Department of Defense’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is expected to cost about $10.9 billion over seven years, the program’s leader said March 7.

If the development plan is approved by DoD and service leaders, the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy will cover $7.2 billion of the cost from fiscal year 2018 to 2024, while the program’s international partners will pay the remaining $3.7 billion, said Navy Vice Adm. Mat Winter, the F-35’s program executive officer, who testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land forces panel. 

A F-35C on the USS Nimitz during 2014 testing. Photo: Navy.
A F-35C on the USS Nimitz during 2014 testing. Photo: Navy.

In her opening remarks, Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, said Congress has been told that the follow-on phase, known as Block 4, would also include more than $5 billion in procurement costs. Winter did not address that figure in his testimony.

Tsongas said the total cost of about $16 billion for Block 4 development and procurement is “astonishingly high” and “greatly exceeds” previous estimates provided to Congress. An August report by the Government Accountability Office put the development cost at a relatively low $3.9 billion through FY 2022, though it noted that the program was reassessing Block 4’s cost, schedule and capabilities (Defense Daily, Aug. 8, 2017).

Block 4, which calls for a mix of hardware and software upgrades to the jet and related equipment, is slated to undergo a high-level DoD review in June, Winter said. Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord will lead the Defense Acquisition Board review.

Block 4, also known as Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (C2D2) is intended to ensure the F-35, whose prime contractor is Lockheed Martin [LMT], stays ahead of advancing threats. The initial 17-year development phase, known as system development and demonstration (SDD), is nearly done.

The currently fielded Block 3 configurations “can engage and provide the much-needed capabilities to our warfighters to fight the fight and to engage today’s threats,” Winter testified. “The problem is today’s threats are not stagnant.”

Winter said that warfighter requirements for Block 4 have been established and are being turned into “technically feasible work packages.”

Tsongas expressed concern that Block 4, which is “software-intensive,” carries “significant risk” and could experience the kind of cost and schedule overruns that plagued SDD.

“How this new effort will somehow defy this unfortunate history remains an open question, to put it mildly,” she said. “It is possible, of course, that the effort will proceed without any problems. It is also possible that a few years from now, we will be told of massive cost overruns and dramatically reduced capabilities planned for delivery.”