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F-35's operating cost estimate to decline, Kendall says

Tony Capaccio
(c) 2014, Bloomberg News


WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will decrease its $1.1 trillion estimate for the cost of supporting Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jet over a 55-year lifespan, the top U.S. weapons buyer said Thursday.

"It will drop to a number that's not trivial but is not as much" a reduction "as I would like," Frank Kendall, the Defense Department's undersecretary for acquisition, said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington.

While debate over the aircraft, the costliest U.S. weapons system, has focused mostly on the price to develop and build the fighter, Pentagon agencies also have disputed its longterm operating costs, from spare parts to repairs.

Kendall declined to elaborate on the reduced 55-year estimate by the department's independent cost-assessment office, which will be released later this month in its next unclassified Selected Acquisition Report. Until then, the official projection is the $1.1 trillion formulated by that office three years ago.

By contrast, the Pentagon's F-35 program office estimates that the fleet will cost $857 billion to operate and support over its lifetime.

On the separate cost of developing and producing a planned fleet of 2,443 F-35s, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in February that its projection is $390.4 billion, as adjusted for inflation over the years the plane is produced. The Pentagon's latest estimate by the same measure is $391.2 billion, about a 1.1 percent reduction from an earlier calculation.

That's still a 68 percent increase from a 2001 estimate the included 409 more planes.

"It's frustrating to me that eight years into production we still have a fair amount of development to go, and I don't want people to lose focus on that," Kendall said today. Kendall has previously described the simultaneous development and production of the F-35 as "acquisition malpractice."

Kendall said that his focus is on insuring that Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed, the biggest U.S. contractor, continues to lower production costs.

Before the award of an eighth production contract, "I want to see specific progress," working with the F-35 program office to identify some milestones "that will give us an indicator of where we are."

Kendall said he also wants to see "active progress" on the next version of software the Marine Corps needs to declare operational its first F-35 models by July 2015 as well as a final version of war-fighting software. "We still have a lot of work to do," he said.

Progress on software testing and structural durability for the Marines' F-35B model "will factor into the details" on the eighth contract, which may include actions that Lockheed must complete in order to received increased orders, he said.

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