House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), a critic of the F-35 program, has suggested that an acceleration of the U.S. Air Force Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, swarms of small drones, and Boeing [BA] F-15EXs could help replace the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35, if the latter does not see significant sustainment cost reductions.

“The number of F-35s we’re gonna buy is gonna be directly related to the sustainment costs,” Smith said during an Aug. 31 address at the Brookings Institute. “If you bring the sustainment costs down, we’ll buy more. If you don’t, we’re not going to, simply because of the cost that’s involved. In terms of what replaces it, the National Defense Strategy is gonna to have a lot to say about this. We’ve seen the purchase of more F-15s. The NGAD is coming.”

The U.S. Air Force has said that the biggest F-35 sustainment obstacle has been a lack of depot capacity to ensure a fast turnaround time on F-35As being repaired.

Among other sustainment cost problems for the F-35 has been a shortage of working Pratt & Whitney [RTX] F135 engines for the fifth-generation fighter (Defense Daily, Apr. 23). On Aug. 31, Smith said that he will push engine competition between Pratt & Whitney and General Electric [GE] for future aircraft and the F-35.

A recent Government Accountability Office study found that the cost per tail per year of the F-35A is $7.8 million, versus a GAO affordability estimate of $4.1 million per tail per year, while the F-35B has a cost per tail per year of $9.1 million versus a GAO affordability estimate of $6.8 million per tail per year, and the F-35C has a cost per tail per year of $9.9 million versus a GAO affordability estimate of $7.5 million per tail per year (Defense Daily, July 7).

“Engine-wise, they’re in the process of developing a new engine, and some of this is contemplated for the NGAD and other future platforms, but we are going to up the investment in that,” Smith said on Aug. 31. “These are engines that could potentially be used in the F-35 as well. We have the ability now, I think, to create engine competition going forward. We are going to push engine competition. They’re burning out faster and taking longer to fix than we expected.”

“The other thing we’ve discovered is that because of missile technology, the F-35 is not going to be as survivable as we had hoped,” Smith said. “It’s got some environments it’s not going to be able to get into because of how much technology has improved since we started building the thing. So what is survivable? This is why drone technology is so important. We’ve seen this play out in some of the fighting that’s happened in Syria and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. You’ve got this undetectable swarm of drones that can still pack a pretty powerful punch. You can’t see it coming. You’ve got a devil of a time shooting it down. That’s why, we make investments in that, that can accomplish a lot of missions that some of these bigger platforms can’t because they’re easier to see,”

“So I think the answer is smaller, more survivable platforms–in many cases, unmanned platforms–are what’s most likely to be more effective at accomplishing some of the missions we envision for the F-35,” Smith said.

The HASC tactical air and land forces subcommittee wants the Comptroller General of the United States to submit a report to the congressional defense committees not later than April 1, 2022, that assesses and identifies current Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps tactical aircraft capability and capacity requirements and forecasted shortfalls. The report would also address how the military services’ modernization efforts, including NGAD, would fill the shortfalls.

In the draft fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill, Smith is recommending that the F-35 meet sustainment cost metrics for two consecutive years before DoD awards a performance-based logistics (PBL) contract (Defense Daily, Aug. 26).

The HASC Chairman’s mark for the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Bill would require Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin by March 1 next year to detail sustainment costs and affordability targets for the three F-35 variants–the U.S. Air Force F-35A, the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B, and the U.S. Navy F-35C. The bill would also require Austin to submit to Congress by that date sustainment cost metrics expressed in cost per tail per year for fiscal years 2022 through 2026.

By Dec. 31 of 2022 and for each year until 2026, the defense secretary would have to certify that the department is meeting cost metrics for those fiscal years, and, if not, the defense secretary would have to submit a detailed justification.

The Chairman’s mark of the bill requires the defense secretary to certify that a performance-based logistics contract will reduce sustainment costs and requires the defense secretary to submit two consecutive annual certifications of the F-35 program meeting sustainment cost metrics before DoD may award any PBL contracts.

The Air Force has been negotiating a three-year sustainment contract with Lockheed Martin for the service’s F-35A fighter–a contract that is to have performance incentives for cost reduction (Defense Daily, June 22).