The F-35 numbers game

Lockheed officials say recent dire predictions about the cost of the F-35 aren't based on good data or realistic assumptions, but they don't have a quick alternative.

There’s been a lot of talk about the costs of the F-35 Lightning II, but the plane’s main manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, wants you to take it all with a grain of salt. Company officials from CEO Robert Stevens on down all pushed back Tuesday against the dire predictions about what DoD will need to pay to fly and maintain its jets over their lives, arguing that the data involved were flawed and some of the information needed to make good models hasn’t even been collected yet.

You can’t compare the F-35 to the jets that came before it, Lockheed officials say, but if you do, and you use unrealistic assumptions about how often it’ll fly, how many maintainers it’ll need, how much its fuel will cost, etc., of course you can come up with a big number. (In fact the number everyone keeps using is $1 trillion.) So what is Lockheed’s alternative estimate? Well… it doesn’t have one yet.

Steve O’Bryan, Lockheed’s vice president for F-35 business development, said the early jets need to fly a lot more before company and Pentagon officials have enough information in order to make good, long-term projections for how much they’ll cost to operate. In fact, it might not be until 2015 or 2016, after all three variants have flown for about 200,000 hours, that Lockheed officials will have enough data of their own to build good, long-term projections, O’Bryan said.

So why, reporters asked, has Lockheed let top DoD officials and congressional lawmakers say categorically that the F-35 will be unaffordable when the company believes there’s no way to predict yet what the exact costs will be?

“We really need to prove ourselves out,” O’Bryan said. “We can’t just say, ‘no that’s wrong.’ What we really need to do is show actual data … I can’t fight estimates that go out to 2068. That’s very difficult to do. All I can point to is the data I have, the analysis we’ve done … What we have to do is perform and demonstrate a reliable and affordable airplane. Until we do that, I don’t think it’s helpeful to just say it’s wrong. If I were somebody else I’d say, ‘go prove it,’ and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”