WASHINGTON: Just a day after the first-ever combat airstrike by an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon and prime contractor Lockheed Martin announced a new $11.5 billion contract for the next lot of fighters that brings the price of the base model, the F-35A, down below $90 million apiece for the first time.
The timing is so tidy, and the press blitz so coordinated, that a skeptic might wonder if the strike planning and contract negotiation were coordinated. But these are genuine milestones, even if they don’t settle the debate. At least in terms of public perceptions, could this be the long-awaited turning point for the controversial stealth fighter after three decades of often-troubled development?
The cost per plane has been coming down, as contractors learn to build the airplane more efficiently, efficiencies of scale start kicking in, and two successive program managers have played hardball on price, publicly berating Lockheed Martin. How much? Lockheed says it’s already brought the “fly away cost” — i.e. the marginal cost per plane, not counting R&D — by about 60 percent from Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) lot 1, signed in 2007 for just two planes, to LRIP 10, signed in February 2017 for 90 planes. Today’s announcement was for LRIP 11, which covers a whopping 141 aircraft:
- 102 F-35As, the base model used by the US Air Force and most international customers, for $89.2 million apiece, down 5.4 percent from LRIP 10;
- 25 F-35Bs, the “jump jet” version used by the US Marines (including in yesterday’s strike) and UK Royal Navy, for $115.5 million each, down 5.7 percent; and
- 14 F-35Cs, the extra-tough carrier-based variant used by the US Navy, for $107.7 million each, down 11.1 percent.
What’s more, all these figures are counting the jet engine, which previous cost announcements often omitted, conveniently, as it’s technically a separate contract.
Despite these big numbers, moreover, remember this is still a “Low Rate Initial Production” contract: The Pentagon has technically not yet give Lockheed the go-ahead to enter full rate production. When it does, the program should achieve even greater efficiencies — but the total cost will be staggering for what’s the biggest defense program in history.