Understanding 44% spike in F-35 sustainment costs over six years

In the wake of debates surrounding the F-35 fifth-generation fighter program, the presentation by the House Armed Services Committee brought to light some significant concerns about the program. 

Markham welcomes two new British F-35s, expanding fleet to 30
Photo credit: British MoD

At the heart of these discussions was the recent audit conducted by the Government Accountability Office, which showed a steep 44% increase in the projected sustainment costs of the program from 2018 to 2023. This surge has resulted in a jump from $1.1 trillion in 2018 to a staggering $1.58 trillion for the lifespan of the fleet.

Adding insult to injury, these figures do not account for the planned future expenditure of $2 trillion to acquire an additional 1,800 airframes. The audit report also highlights the fighter’s distinctively dismal “full mission capable rate”; a record it holds as the lowest within the fleet, rivaled only by the equally problematic F-22. 

Disappointing 14,9 percent

The report states that, in that particular year, the full mission capable rate for the F-35B variant was a disappointing 14.9 percent. This makes it the most expensive and complex model to handle amongst its counterparts in the F-35 series.

Consistently low availability rates have continuously been a source of frustration among lawmakers. This is especially so because new aircraft are expected to outperform and require less maintenance than the aging F-15 and F-16 airframes constructed during the Cold War era, some of which have been in active service for over three decades. 

These new revelations emerged from a Government Accountability Office audit and were confirmed by Lockheed Martin, the mega-corporation leading the aircraft production. The firm indicated that expected deliveries in 2024 could drop by 27-50 percent. Moreover, the long-awaited Technology Refresh 3 (TR-3) upgrade package, already lagging a year behind its delivery timeline, may not debut before 2025.

Six Australian F-35s fly over Nevada in 'world's toughest dogfight'
Photo credit: RAAF / X

Austin objected

During a hearing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made headlines as he countered discussions labeling the F-35 as little more than pricey and ineffective showpieces. This characterization was brought on by their disappointingly low operational rate and underwhelming performance in heavy combat situations. This debate was instigated by Representative Matt Gaetz, who raised the pointed question: “If it’s not mission-capable, do we just stare at it and admire it?” Austin’s response was unyieldingly optimistic, asserting that “we continue to work to ensure our aircraft are operational.” 

In stark contrast, past defense heads have been far more candid with their criticisms of the F-35 program. Take, for instance, Austin’s immediate predecessor, Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller. His outlook portrayed the program as a self-made “monster”, and he left no room for interpretation when it came to his opinion on the fighter’s merits, describing it as “a piece of….”


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