What Is The F-35 Fighter And How Much Does It Cost?

The F-35 fighter is the most expensive weapons program in the world and Lockheed Martin’s (LMT) biggest revenue generator. Despite a history of cost overruns and schedule delays, the program has persisted and production is ramping up.

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What Is The F-35 Fighter?

The F-35 fighter will form the backbone of the future U.S. fighter fleet, and Lockheed touts it as the “quarterback” of a joint strike force.

It can fly at speeds of Mach 1.6 or roughly 1,200 miles per hour and has a range of 450-600 nautical miles. The F-35 is capable of carrying nuclear weapons as well as conventional weapons.

Fifth-generation jets differentiate themselves from older fourth-generation jets with stealth. Stealth doesn’t mean the plane is invisible but in reality means it’s a “low-observable aircraft” that uses its shape, coatings and internal weapons to lower the aircraft’s radar signature.

The F-35 fighter comes in three variants:

The F-35A is a conventional-landing jet. It will be the most common of the three variants. Key customers include the U.S. Air Force and most international partners.
The F-35B is short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant to replace the AV-8B Harrier jet. Key customers include the U.S. Marine Corps, Japan and the British Navy.
The F-35C can be used on aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy is the biggest customer.

Lockheed is the prime contractor for the F-35. The fighter accounts for about a quarter of Lockheed’s total revenue. But management expects the program’s revenue will grow at a faster rate than the overall top line through the end of the decade.

The F-35 is powered by United Technologies’ (UTX) Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. Northrop Grumman (NOC) is a major subcontractor on the jet and makes the center fuselage and key avionics. The U.K.’s BAE Systems (BAESY) makes the life support and fuel systems.

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How Much Does The F-35 Cost To Make And Fly?

The F-35’s acquisition price tag is $400 billion, making it the most expensive Pentagon program ever. The current unit price of an F-35A is now $89.2 million and Lockheed predicts this price will fall to $80 million by 2020. The F-35B variant is $115.5 million and the F-35C is $107.7 million. But as production ramps up, the unit price will drop further.

And after acquisition, the estimate for operating and maintaining the total fleet over the course of its service life is a whopping $1.45 trillion. The F-35A variant costs $44,000 per hour to fly vs. $19,000 per hour for the legacy F-16 fighter, according to Air Force data cited by the Washington Post.

Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the U.K. partnered with the U.S. on the jet’s development and plan to buy it as well. Japan, Israel and South Korea are also buying the jet, while Belgium and Finland are considering purchases.

The U.S. and its allies have 3,100 F-35s on order through 2035. More than 355 F-35s have been delivered worldwide.

F-35 Fighter History And Milestones

Lockheed beat out Boeing (BA) for the contract awarded in October 2001, when the total acquisition price tag was estimated at $200 billion and the plane was expected to cost $40 million-$50 million a piece.

At the time, the Pentagon believed the F-35 would enter service in 2010 with the Marine Corps, 2011 with the Air Force, and 2012 with the Navy.

But following repeated delays, the F-35 entered service in 2015 with the Marines, 2016 with the Air Force and 2019 with the Navy. The Israeli Air Force, Italian Air Force and the United Kingdom Royal Air Force have also declared their F-35s ready for combat operations.

In May 2018, Israel became the first country to use the F-35 in combat, and the following September saw the first time a U.S. F-35 was used in combat when a Marine Corps squadron conducted strikes in Afghanistan.

F-35 Criticisms

The F-35 program has come under withering criticism for its ballooning cost and repeated setbacks, including too much weight on the F-35B; glitches in the Autonomic Logistics Information System, which helps manage diagnostics, maintenance and supply-chain issues; problems with the ejection seat and helmet; and delays in the Gatling gun, among other issues.

Its effectiveness in combat has also been in doubt. In 2015, an F-35 reportedly lost a training dogfight to an F-16. Pentagon officials downplayed dogfighting criticisms, saying that’s not the F-35’s main mission.

Then the F-35 faced off against the Cold War-era A-10 to see if it could fully replace the older plane in close air support roles. The Pentagon hasn’t disclosed results of that matchup.

Critics are also concerned about the range of the F-35, especially as new missiles from China and Russia would force U.S. aircraft carriers to operate farther offshore, as well as the smaller interior payload capacity than older planes.

A trade-off of stealth fighters is that maintaining a low-observable radar profile means they can’t carry as many missiles and bombs under their wings. So, fourth-generation fighters such as the F-15 can bring more firepower.

The F-35 can carry 5,700 pounds of bombs internally while maximizing its stealth and 22,000 pounds in “beast mode” while in uncontested airspace, according to the F-35 program office.

To counter the F-35 fighter and get a bigger piece of the fighter jet market, Boeing is offering an updated version of its F-15 and F/A-18 Super Hornet.

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The post What Is The F-35 Fighter And How Much Does It Cost? appeared first on Investor's Business Daily.

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