The F-35 will be the country's most expensive weapons program ever — an estimated $1 trillion. The Air Force, Navy and Marines will use three different versions of the plane, and that redundancy will theoretically save money in the long run.
But in a report to Congress on Monday, the Government Accountability Office worried that with only 2 percent of flight tests completed, the White House decision to accelerate the F-35 will end up costing taxpayers.
"The biggest problem will be that they'll wind up costing a lot more because they are going to find problems when they test them," says Mike Sullivan, the GAO's director of acquisition. "And those changes are going to have to be cranked back into the design of the aircraft. That's all going to be expensive, and they'll probably get delivered later. "
Sullivan predicts that when all is said and done, the price of the nearly 2,500 jets built by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas, could approach $140 million for each plane.
In the midst of a nasty recession and a huge deficit, is this a good idea? Owen Cote, director of the MIT Securities Studies Program, says yes. "Basically, money solves all problems," Cote says. "They're telling the GAO thanks for your advice; we're going to accelerate the program because we've canceled F-22 and we want to get to this generation fighter as quickly as possible."
For the Marines, the F-35 will be a jump jet, capable of short takeoff and vertical landings, able to do close air support for troops in the field. For the Navy, it will fly off aircraft carriers and be used as a strike aircraft. For the Air Force, it will be flown off traditional runways and used for tactical bombing and air-to-air combat. Or change the military service around and the jet's mission as much as desired.
GAO's Sullivan says the Obama administration made a smart move to kill the F-22 and bet on the F-35. "People talk about the price," he says, "but remember ... how many different airplanes it's going to replace. I think it's a good jet."
A plane for a new age of the American battlefield. Now for the hard part: Out of the nearly 2,500 planes planned to be operational by 2015, only two have been completed.