By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon estimates that it will still cost about $1 trillion to operate a fleet of 2,443 F-35 fighter jets over the next 50 years, but is continuing to analyze how to drive that staggering sum down, a top U.S. Marine Corps official told Reuters.
Lieutenant General Terry Robling, deputy Marine Corps commandant for aviation, said top defense officials agreed last week to continue low-rate production of the new radar-evading warplane built by Lockheed Martin Corp, while keeping a close eye on the cost of maintaining and operating the new jets.
"Everybody was on board with ... the program," Robling told Reuters aboard a military aircraft on Saturday after a ceremony involving three F-35B jets at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. "We understand the costs are high. We understand that we need to do something, we need to make decisions down the road."
Robling said the cost estimate would likely decline in coming years as more jets were built and flown, reducing the reliance on comparison data from other aircraft programs.
Unless the estimates do come down substantially, the Pentagon may have to decide to buy fewer airplanes, reduce the number of anticipated flight hours, or skip adding certain capabilities to the plane, Robling said, although he noted that decision point could still be five to 10 years off.
The estimated cost just to develop and buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is around $382 billion, but that number could increase somewhat when the Pentagon reports the cost of its major acquisition programs to Congress next month.
Defense officials say the cost of the program will increase somewhat since the Pentagon is postponing orders for 179 planes for five years to allow more testing and limit the number of costly retrofits to already produced planes.
The delays and budget pressures at home are prompting eight international partners who are helping fund the F-35 development -- Britain, Italy, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Turkey, Canada and the Netherlands -- to rethink their orders as well.
ESTIMATES BASED ON LOW FLIGHT HOURS, OTHER AIRPLANES
"It's an unaffordable program at the numbers that we're using," Robling said. But he cautioned that the F-35 was still in development and much of the reliability data was preliminary, based on just 2,500 hours of flight time on the new warplane.
For instance, the cost of operating the V-22 Osprey had come down about 30 percent since it was first fielded, Robling said. Aggressive oversight, increased reliability of parts and different flying guidelines had helped cut the cost from $12,000 per flight hour to a record low of $8,300 last month, he noted.
"We'll learn that on JSF as we go. We'll expect those costs to come down," he said, adding that maintainers would never accept the low readiness rates now factored in for the F-35.
"We're going to get better, we'll drive cost out and we'll drive readiness up. But it won't happen until we start buying the airplane" in greater numbers, Robling said.
The Pentagon's chief weapons tester said in a December report that the mean flight hours between critical failures on the Air Force version of the F-35 were about 2.65 hours, but Robling said that number was "ridiculous" since it was based on the low number of hours flown during developmental testing.
WORK ON LOWERING SUSTAINMENT COSTS ONGOING
Robling said the F-35 was also the first big Pentagon weapons program to be evaluated using a 50-year lifetime cost estimate -- about 20 years longer than most programs -- which made the program seem artificially more expensive.
Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute has said that using the same methodology over the same period, the current fleet of tactical fighters such as the F-16 and F/A-18s would require spending $4 trillion on operation and sustainment.
The Pentagon estimates it will cost about $30,000 per hour to operate the F-35, in large part due to the cost of fuel.
The Pentagon's high-level Defense Acquisition Board met last week to review the F-35 program and its sustainment cost, but the F-35 program office is still working on a comprehensive review of the operation and maintenance costs, Robling said.
Air Force acquisition chief David Van Buren told a conference earlier this month that the F-35 program office was continuing to examine the plane's sustainment cost, and the trend was "moving in the right direction."
Lockheed officials chafe at the Pentagon's sustainment cost figure, arguing that it does not account for significant differences between the fifth-generation fighter and earlier planes. For instance, the F-35 is built of composite materials that should sharply lower maintenance bills by eliminating the labor-intensive, anti-corrosion work.
Another key difference is the huge number of sensors and computers on board, which give maintainers far greater insight into any problems that might arise.
Decisions on the program's longer-term future and the expected total procurement amount were still a long way off, Robling said. "Over the next couple of years, maybe even five years, 10 years, I think the program will mature to the point where we go, 'OK, this is where we're going to stop.' Or we'll decide to continue because we see them getting the price lower."
The high cost of retrofitting already produced planes if problems arose during development testing, which is continuing concurrently with low-rate production, should fall away in 2015 or 2016, Roblin said, removing additional cost from the program.
Roblin said Lockheed and the Pentagon's F-35 program office had made great strides in better managing the program over the past two years. "They've driven out a lot of cost, and they're still finding ways to do that."
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Maureen Bavdek)