Australia could end up paying under US$80 million for F-35A Joint Strike Fighter aircraft as accelerating production drives down costs.
US Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office in the Pentagon, said the production lot (LRIP) nine negotiated in 2015 was for 60 aircraft while the 2017 lot would be for 134 aircraft.
By 2020 each lot will be for 160 aircraft.
He said the price per airplane was coming down lot after lot. The price of an F-35A in LRIP 10 was US$94.6 million.
“I see that number continuing to come down,” he said at Avalon on Tuesday.
General Bogdan said the JPO had consistently promised that an F-35A purchased in 2019 would be less than US$85 million.
“I am here to tell you today that that is not enough. We need the airplane to be lower in price in 2019 and 2020 than US$85 million and I think we can get there.
“We ought to be looking at about an US$80 million airplane by that timeframe and then continuing to reduce the price of the airplane lot over lot over lot.”
The F-35 has been consistently criticised for being too expensive, most recently by new US President Donald Trump.
General Bogdan said the Trump message to both industry and the Defense Department – that he wanted better value for money was a great message which was to be applauded.
He said since the F-35 program was re-baselined in 2011, the price trajectory had been consistently down. Before 2011, the program was running late and over budget.
Australia plans to buy a total of 72 F-35A aircraft with the full fleet in service by the end of 2023. Two have been delivered, early production aircraft now part of the international pilot training fleet at Luke US Air Force base. Each cost more than US$120 million.
General Bogdan said F-35 had achieved great progress in 2016 with the US Air Force declaring initial operating capability of their first F-35 squadrons. F-35 aircraft were now permanently based in Israel and Italy with Norway next.
In the next four years F-35s will be based in 14 countries.
“We have risks. We have things we want to sort out. There are challenges ahead. But since 2011 when the program, was re-baselined we are in a much better frame than we have ever been.”
In one test of F-35s ability to disseminate data, a Marine F-35B detected a low altitude high speed drone simulating a cruise missile, conveyed the tracking data to a US Navy Aegis cruiser simulation out in the desert. Using that data, the cruiser was able to fire a SM-6 missile and shoot down the missile beyond the visible horizon.
Lt Gen Bogdan said that was a very important demonstration for Australia considering our acquisition of both F-35s and the Navy’s new Aegis air warfare destroyers.
He said the $55 billion F-35 development program, which started in 2001 would conclude next year.
When the F-35 program was re-baselined in 2011, the plan was to finish flight testing by the end of 2017 with full capability delivered between August this year and next February. That includes the final software Block 3F which delivers the full warfighting ability.
“Today I am here to tell you we are well within that window for completing all the flight testing and for delivering that capability,” he said.