1 March 2019

A key topic of discussion at this week’s AFA Air Power Symposium is the Trump Administration’s pending Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) budget and its anticipated inclusion of funding for the acquisition of new-builtF-15X fighter aircraft from Boeing Company.

(It has been widely reported in the trade press that the Trump Administration will seek eight F-15X aircraft in the FY20 request — which will drop on/about 12 March 2019 — as the first installment of an 80-plane buy over the next five years.)

In a roundtable discussion with reporters yesterday, Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command (ACC), skirted questions regarding whether he and the Air Force actually wanted more fourth-generation F-15s in the Service’s aging fighter force structure.

General Holmes told reporters that prospective F-15X procurement, which will supposedly supplement and not cannibalize planned F-35 purchases, will help push the annual tactical buy (from 48 closer to the 72 aircraft needed) and will thus serve the purposes of increasing the number — and decreasing the average age — of fighters in the USAF inventory.

When reporters pressed him for the anticipated unit cost for the new build F-15X aircraft, suggested that these fighters might not cost that much less than F-35s, and asked why the USAF wouldn’t just buy more F-35s more quickly to address the aging issue and the inventory shortfall while getting 5th generation fighters rather than 4th generation fighters, General Holmes made clear that it is total ownership cost — not just acquisition cost — that is important to consider.

“There’s more to think about than just the acquisition cost. There’s the cost to operate the airplane over time.” Added General Holmes: “We’re pretty confident to say that we can go cheaper getting 72 airplanes with a mix of fifth and fourth gen than we did if we did all fifth gen.”

While the challenges that the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin have encountered — and the high costs that have been incurred — over the F-35 program’s long development have been exhaustively chronicled, it seems clear that, with the aircraft fielded and some time on the books, the F-35’s high ownership costs are now coming into focus and these high costs are at least part of the Trump Administration’s calculus on the F-15X acquisition.

According to the latest available figures provided to DSJ today by the Air Combat Command, the “then year” FY 2017 dollars for costs per flight hour for USAF tactical aircraft* are as follows:

  • F-15C: $33,412/hour
  • F-15E: $25,141/hour
  • F-16: $20,423/hour
  • F-35: $50,246/hour

In other words, it is, at present, twice as expensive for the USAF to operate an F-35 than it is to operate an F-15E, even given that fleet’s advanced age and the advantages that would appear to accrue to the F-35 based on that aircraft’s advanced Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS).

While Lockheed Martin told DSJ at AFA that the company is on a path to “25 by 25” ($25,000/hour by 2025), at present, it seems clear that the high cost of operating the F-35 is skewing the cost-benefit calculation that the USAF is making in operating the most advanced fighter in the world. (A excellent recent Reuters piece on Lockheed Martin’s approach to reducing F-35 ownership costs is here.)

* Here’s the official definition of cost per flying hour, per the Air Combat Command: “The Operational Cost Per Flying Hour (OCPFH) is calculated by dividing the total operating and sustainment costs (excluding hardware modifications) associated with a weapon system by the total flying hours flown in the same year. Operational Cost includes: Unit-Level Manpower, Unit Operations, Maintenance, Sustaining Support, Continuing System Improvements (excluding hardware modifications), and Indirect Support. Ownership Cost Per Flying Hour is calculated like the OCPFH but includes hardware modifications.”