AIRSHOW-Pentagon, contractors take aim at F-35 operating costs

Tue Jun 18, 2013 9:33am EDT
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* Pentagon sees estimates coming down after fall review

* Marine Corps general sees big possible savings

* Estimates based on assumptions, not actual data

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

PARIS, June 18 (Reuters) - With development and technology challenges on the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter increasingly under control, the company and the U.S. military are taking aim at a more vexing problem: the cost of flying and maintaining the new warplane.

U.S. officials worry the current $1.1 trillion price tag for operations and maintenance - sometimes called "sustainment" - will erode international support for the new Joint Strike Fighter, which is critical to ensuring the plane can be as affordable as advertised.

Lockheed is developing three models of the F-35 for the U.S. military and eight countries that are helping fund its development: Britain, Australia, Canada, Norway, Italy, Turkey, Denmark and the Netherlands. They are meant to replace more than a dozen types of warplanes now in use around the world.

"The sustainment cost is our biggest challenge," Lieutenant General Robert Schmidle, deputy Marine Corps commandant for aviation, told Reuters in an interview at the Paris air show.

Production costs for the new single-engine jets are coming down steadily, and even the cost of retrofitting planes to deal with issues discovered during testing, or concurrency cost, is declining. But Pentagon forecasters have clung to their $1-trillion projection for the cost of operating and repairing the fleet of 2,443 radar-evading jets over the next five decades.   Continued...