Maintenance of the F-35 will be (much) too expensive in 2036, according to the GAO and the US Air Force

Each year, the Government Accountability Office, the American equivalent of the Court of Auditors, submits a report on the F-35 program, and each year, since 2012, this report warns of the budgetary wall that the maintenance of the aircraft will constitute. as soon as it will have entered service on a massive scale in the US armies, and in particular within the US Air Force, which plans to acquire 1.763 units. And this year's report will not have been an exception, since the office estimates that in the state of projections of maintenance costs, that is to say by taking into account the decreases planned in the future in application of the methods. optimization of costs already implemented, the maintenance of the American F35s will generate a budgetary additional cost of $ 6 billion in 2036, including $ 4,4 billion for the US Air Force alone, when the aircraft will have reached its operational peak in the 3 US armed forces that implement it, the USAF with the F-35A, the US Navy with the F-35C and the US Marine Corps with the F-35B.

But one thing differs greatly this year from previous years. Indeed, the US Air Force, which until now supported tooth and nail its apparatus and its objectives, has obviously completely turned its face, not only by giving credence to the projections of the GAO, but by adding that as it is. At present, the only means at its disposal to be able to support its fleet of F-35s, would be either to reduce it in volume by reducing the number of aircraft, or to reduce it in activity, by reducing the number of aircraft. annual flight hours of each aircraft. And to add that, according to her, there are no more applicable solutions likely to significantly reduce the maintenance costs of the F35 allowing to get back to the sustainability projections of this fleet, joining in this the opinion expressed by General Kelly, the Commander of the American Fighter, just a week ago.

If the unit acquisition prices of the F35A have reached the objectives set by Lockheed-Martin, maintenance costs remain so high that they would require a 35% reduction in the number of annual flight hours, or 65 hours of flight time. fewer flights per aircraft, to make the fleet of 1.763 aircraft planned for the US Air Force budgetably sustainable in 2036

Obviously, none of these solutions is, in fact, acceptable to the US Air Force, which must now prepare to stand up to the burgeoning Chinese air force, as well as the reviving Russian air force. Reducing the number of F35s to achieve overall sustainability, i.e. more than 700 aircraft to offset the $ 4,4 billion deficit to $ 6,1 million per aircraft per year, would in effect reduce the volume of the fleet by 25%. of American fighter, while the need for deployment will grow in the years to come, and that the "mass" will once again become a major stake in the face of the two super-powers, Chinese and Russian. Decreasing the number of annual flying hours of each aircraft would be an even more disastrous solution, whatever the Lockheed-Martin salespeople may say, the US Air Force knowing full well that its efficiency depends largely on the excellence of pilot training and training, and several reports published in recent years across the Atlantic insist on the decisive role that crew training represents in this area.

Ce US Air Force posture change, which may appear brutal, actually results froma strategy implemented for several years to, in all likelihood, get out of the commitment of 1.763 aircraft, and replace part of the F-35A with an aircraft much more suited to the needs and operational requirements that it now plans to face, particularly in the Pacific. Indeed, in recent years, the USAF has meticulously questioned the industrial and technological model of the F-35 program, the sustainability of its costs, his performances on the Pacific Theater, and has even started to offer output alternatives, either by developing a new mid-generation deviceEither by ordering new F-16s, either by extending the scope of the NGAD program, all without ever confronting head-on this program which, obviously, no longer suits it for the conflicts to come.

The USAF's NGAD program may well replace much more than the F22 Raptor, but also a large part of the other fighters currently in service, including the A10 and F16.

Let us remember that the heads of the US Air Force are soldiers, and as such, they have some notions of strategy. They know full well that the F-35 program enjoys a very important industrial and above all political support, and that it has extremely powerful leverage, especially in terms of jobs, in the most populous states of the United States such as California, Texas or Florida, which are also the states which have the largest number of Representatives in Congress. Since then, a balance of power strategy would have very little chance of succeeding, as the political support for the program is fierce, especially towards their congressional counterparts who are more critical of it. As a result, the USAF undertook to methodically cut all the branches on which the F35's support was based, by attacking its costs, but also its performance especially against China in the vastness of the Pacific, by openly doubting public ambitions. of the program, and above all by opening the door to not one, but several alternatives, clearly dropping the device from the pedestal on which it had been placed for two decades.

We can also expect, within two or three years, when the pressure will be maximum on the program, that the US Air Force presents, within the framework of the NGAD program, a demonstrator developed in a confidential manner. , which would precisely meet all of its needs to complete the air superiority fighter that will replace the F22 also developed within this program. It is also quite funny, and hardly difficult, to imagine what will be the characteristics of such a device, which will have to be close to the 5th generation (a classification which loses more of its meaning every day) namely to be discreet and able to fight in cooperation, which will have to have an extended range of action of up to 1.200 nm to be effective in the Pacific, whose maintenance and implementation will be simplified and economical (between 15 and 20 hours of maintenance and current $ 17.000 to $ 20.000 per flight hour), and which will be able to perform a large number of missions thanks to a maximum speed close to Mach 2 and super-cruising, significant maneuverability at high and low altitude, and a large carrying capacity (over 6 tonnes). A twin-engine configuration would also be preferred for the Pacific theater. No doubt you have an idea of ​​a device model that would already meet these specifications.

4-finger fighter training could well prove to be far too expensive to be able to be implemented in the future by the US Air Force.

The fact remains that beyond the purely American problematic concerning the program, the F35 was also chosen by 14 air forces in the world, of which 8 are European, and that the device is supposed to constitute one of the pillars of the defense of the old continent for the next 40 years. However, the reduction in the volume of orders from the US Air Force, which to date represents 50% of the total volume of aircraft to be produced, will impact European air forces such as the US Air Force and the US Navy. Today, at the Pentagon, the figure of 1.200 F35A for the US Air Force is frequently put forward, but some would rather consider 800 to 850 aircraft, i.e. a reduction of 50% of the planned fleet, and of 25% of the volume of aircraft to produce. It is moreover this last assumption which must be retained if one hopes to save a significant part of the 4,4 billion $ of additional costs of the US Air Force per year by replacing a device at 33.000 $ per hour of flight. by an aircraft at $ 18.000 (in $ 2021) per flight hour over 200 annual flight hours. It should be noted that to compensate for these same $ 4,4 billion per year in additional costs on the sole assumption of a decrease in the number of flight hours per aircraft, it would be necessary to reduce 65 flight hours each year each cell, which does not would then fly more than 120 hours per year, turning the USAF into a luxury flying club.

Naturally, such differences would profoundly disrupt the program and its cost structure, with a probable increase in acquisition costs, maintenance and above all in evolutionary maintenance and R&D costs, which would automatically increase by at least 20 to 25% per year. device in such a case. It is also likely that Lockheed-Martin customers will soon face these same problems of sustainability of the budgetary effort to set up their own fleet, and that Dutch, Norwegian, Danish or Belgian planes and pilots, They too come to limit the number of hours flown in order not to dry up their country's defense budget, while contributing to a significant reduction in the efficiency of the European air forces, even though the situation a geostrategic in the making would require precisely the opposite. All of this, of course, puts a new blow on the credibility of the arguments put forward by the Swiss authorities and Armasuisse, both concerning the economic, operational and risk management aspects. its arbitration rendered a week ago in favor of the American plane.

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