Rising Joint Strike Fighter costs could put pressure on Defense budget

Overall cost of construction and operation is approaching $1 trillion, GAO says.

The cost to build and operate a fleet of the military's newest stealth fighter jet is approaching $1 trillion, according to congressional auditors. The program will consume a sizable chunk of future defense budgets, likely crowding out other priorities, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a new study.

In its report (GAO-08-388), GAO found that Lockheed Martin's Joint Strike Fighter program is plagued by design changes and production line troubles that have caused costs to increase by more than $23 billion in the last year alone. JSF will place an "unprecedented demand" on future defense budgets, GAO concluded, with annual costs averaging $11 billion a year for the next two decades. That sum is comparable to what the Pentagon spends on a host of missile defense programs every year.

The Pentagon's planned purchase of 2,458 aircraft will cost $300 billion, with another $650 billion required for life-cycle operation and support.

JSF was intended to provide an affordable, common aircraft design with different variants for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The production line is expected to run until at least 2034. Lockheed Martin won the JSF contract in 2001.

The Air Force version will replace the service's F-16 and A-10 aircraft. A short takeoff and vertical landing version will replace the Marine Corps Harrier jets. A carrier version will fly alongside the Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. A number of U.S. allies have signed agreements to buy at least 646 additional JSF aircraft.

The Pentagon has said that replacing aging aircraft with the JSF will reduce overall operating costs because of reliability and maintainability features in the new planes. But support cost estimates have nearly doubled in recent years, from $346 billion in 2005 to $650 billion now. GAO said the operating cost per flying hour of the JSF will be higher than the F-16 it is designed to replace.

GAO's $1 trillion estimate may even be a conservative figure. Congressional investigators have questioned the $300 billion acquisition estimate. Three offices within the Defense Department say it is low by as much as $38 billion. The delivery date is likely to slip by more than two years, GAO said.

Late-maturing technologies and weight increases in the aircraft have slowed production and forced redesigns, while difficulties in wing and final assembly phases meant that the first test aircraft required 35 percent more labor hours than planned. In addition, electrical malfunctions and parts failures in prototype aircraft have delayed flight tests. "A fully integrated, capable production aircraft is not expected to enter flight testing until fiscal year 2012," GAO said.

GAO auditors said they anticipate further increases and schedule delays, and "a major program restructure seems inevitable." A soaring price tag likely will force the military to buy fewer of the new fighters, the report said.