ORLANDO, Fla. – The manufacturer of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is committed to lowering sustainment costs over the next decade, and pledged to reach a goal of $25,000 per flight hour per year by 2025, an official said March 1.

Lockheed Martin [LMT] has begun to focus on increasing supply availability and optimize maintenance with process automation, and has made improvements to the F-35’s infamously unwieldy automatic logistics information system (ALIS) to reach that goal, Vice President of Sustainment and Innovation Operations OJ Sanchez told reporters March 1 at the Air Force Association’s annual Air Warfare Symposium here.

Maintenance staff inspect one of the 10 Luke AFB F-35s sent to Nellis AFB for a training deployment, April 15, 2015. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

That $25,000 cost per flying hour is nested in a goal to reach a cost of $4.1 million “per tail per year” by 2033, a point of maturity for the program set by the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), Sanchez added.

Process automation has enabled the company to take better advantage of the material it already owned, increasing its target stock levels by 15 percent, Sanchez said.

“We made those changes, we modernized in this particular area, … [and] immediately saw that increase with the exact same material,” he said.

The Air Force and Lockheed Martin have also developed software solutions for the proprietary ALIS system, which is meant to assist with mission planning and repairs as well as order spare parts, but has been reported as slow and cumbersome to operate by maintainers. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced during her Thursday keynote speech at AFA that two new software solutions, dubbed Kronos and Titan, had been developed by the service’s Kessel Run office under the Mad Hatter program. Defense News first reported on the new software programs on Wednesday.

Enhancing ALIS and its information technology architecture is “very valuable to the overall cost target goals as well as performance,” Sanchez noted. “That bidirectional flow of data between the flight line and the supply chain as well as the engineering services that support it is critical.” Lockheed Martin is investing about $180 million in ALIS and its related data systems through 2021, he added.

The cost of sustaining an F-35 fighter has come under scrutiny by Pentagon officials. The current cost to sustain the F-35 played a factor in the Air Force’s decision to request funding to procure new F-15X fighter jets in the FY ‘20 budget, service leaders said Thursday at the AFA conference.

Wilson confirmed in a media roundtable that the original FY ’20 Presidential Budget request had not included funding for Boeing [BA]-made advanced F-15 aircraft, but she and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein emphasized that the service needed to boost capacity and did not have sufficient funds to buy more F-35s (Defense Daily, Feb. 28). The F-15X – versions of which are already in production for countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar – is expected to cost less than the Joint Strike Fighter.

However, Wilson noted that “It’s not just the cost of the airframe, it’s the cost to maintain the airframe over its life.” The fact that Lockheed Martin has not yet driven down the sustainment costs “as fast as we’d want them to” is “a little frustrating,” she added.

What’s more, fourth-generation fighter aircraft are less expensive to sustain than fifth-generation jets, she noted. “That was a factor in the money we had available.”

Lockheed Martin remains committed to reaching an $80 million unit price for the Air Force’s F-35A by 2020, Sanchez noted. F-35 Program Executive Officer Adm. Mat Winter told reporters in October 2018 that that goal was potentially achievable (Defense Daily, Oct. 2, 2018). Should those two goals be achieved, “you are well in the range of fourth-generation airplanes” in terms of cost, Sanchez said.

He noted that Lockheed Martin is responsible for about 40 percent of the overall sustainment costs on the industry side. The company has brought the industry side’s sustainment costs down by 15 percent since 2015, he added. “We’re forecasting with the improvements we’re making and what we’re working on with the JPO, that we’ll continue down that curve” to reach the cost-per-flying-hour goal by 2025.