Andrew Hunter, the Biden administration’s nominee to be U.S. Air Force acquisition chief, said that he favors the examination of “other avenues” to reduce the operating costs for the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35A beyond buying more planes.

Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a backer of the F-35, said at a SASC nomination hearing that, while the F-35 faces sustainment cost challenges, there is “no other aircraft available today that offers the capability” of the F-35, and he asked Hunter whether he agrees with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall that the best way to decrease operating costs for the F-35 is to buy more.

“The F-35, in my view, is an absolutely vital system for the nation, the challenges that we confront with peer competitors, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region,” Hunter replied. “The cost of sustaining the F-35 has been something that has stressed the services, particularly the Air Force, which has the largest number of aircraft, and, if confirmed, it will be a top priority to work on lowering that cost. It is true that there are fixed costs associated with all of the Air Force’s platforms, and the more aircraft that you have, it does lower the operating costs per aircraft, as you’re able to spread fixed costs over a larger number of assets.”

“I think there are other avenues that we can and should take to lower the sustainment costs for the F-35, and, if confirmed, I look forward to working with this committee to that end,” he said. Inhofe asked Hunter to follow up with the committee and provide his ideas on reducing such costs.

While the Air Force officially retains a goal of buying 1,763 F-35As, Kendall has said that he does not believe the 1,763 is a realistic goal and that he plans to study how to reduce sustainment costs on the aircraft (Defense Daily, Sept. 20). As of late last month, the Air Force had 297 F-35As.

The F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) and Lockheed Martin have agreed to a rebaselined program that will deliver a maximum of 156 F-35s in the coming years–down from a previous expectation of 170 (Defense Daily, Sept. 27).

Defense analyst Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners LLC has noted that the Pentagon’s request for 85 F-35s in fiscal 2022 is a decrease from the 96 funded by Congress in fiscal 2021 and that, while SASC added five U.S. Navy F-35Cs in the SASC markup of the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill, the two House defense committees didn’t increase the F-35 unit buy. In fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2021, Congress added 11-20 F-35s to the administration’s annual request.

There is also some concern about retaining the required technical expertise in the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) to execute the Tech Refresh 3 and Block 4 upgrades to prepare the F-35 to counter China.