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Rising costs, changing threats and rival aircraft — manned and unmanned — could cut nearly in half the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters that ultimately are built, a Dutch defense analyst said in a report to the Dutch parliament. And if fewer planes are built, the price for each, already $100 million or more, will undoubtedly increase, analyst Johan Boeder warned.
A "likely estimate" is that 2,500 F-35s eventually will be built, Boeder wrote in a report delivered to Dutch lawmakers in September. The Netherlands, one of nine countries financing the development of the F-35, was expected to buy 85 planes, but may cut that to 57, Boeder said.
If his overall forecast is correct, the number of F-35s built would be far fewer than the 4,500 or more that F-35-maker Lockheed Martin said it expects to sell. The U.S. military has even predicted that the market for F-35s could reach 6,000.
Lockheed dismisses Boeder's forecast, saying that the company anticipates no drop in demand for F-35s.
"F-35 quantities have held steady for most of the decade," Lockheed spokesman Chris Geisel said. "Year after year, the program has received strong political and budgetary support."
Geisel said that "if F-35 numbers change, it is more likely that they will increase" than decrease. That's because hundreds of current fighters are approaching retirement age, and nations beyond the nine countries that are F-35 partners are expressing interest in buying the aircraft, he said.
But U.S. defense analyst Barry Watts agreed that, ultimately, it is likely that only half of the planned F-35s will be built.
Watts, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said history is against the F-35. In the four stealthy aircraft programs that preceded the F-35, the U.S. military declared a need for 2,378 planes, but ultimately bought only 267. Those programs were the F-117, A-12, B-2 and F-22.
Current plans call for the U.S. military to buy 2,443 F-35s, "but if history is any guide, I would not hold my breath waiting" for that many purchases to be completed. "I think the number is going to be about half of that," said Watts, who is a retired Air Force combat pilot and former chief of the Pentagon's Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation.
Watts said he expects the Air Force to buy 800 to 1,000 F-35s instead of the 1,763 in current service plans. The Air Force can get by with fewer F-35s because it has decided to keep its A-10s and F-15Es in service.
And the Navy is likely to reconsider its F-35 buys because the plane does not have adequate range to permit U.S. aircraft carriers to operate outside the range of area denial weapons being developed by China and other nations, Watts said.
Unmanned carrier-based aircraft are expected to offer the Navy much greater range, he said.
Geisel, Lockheed's spokesman, said that the U.S. still intends to buy 2,443 F-35s, Britain plans to buy 138 and the seven other nations participating in the F-35 program plan to buy about 700. "There are no indications from any of the partner countries that they are going to trim back," he said.
In addition to those 3,281, Lockheed expects to sell F-35s to Israel, Japan, South Korea and other customers. The total "could reach 4,500 or more," Geisel said.
But Boeder, the Dutch analyst, said the U.S. commitment to the F-35 is already eroding.
Originally, the U.S. planned to buy 2,978 F-35s, but by 2005 had cut that number by more than 500. Since then, even lower numbers have been suggested. In 2007, Boeder said, the U.S. pushed acquisition of 515 F-35s far into the future — to between 2028 and 2035 — to ease funding problems. But Boeder said that move raises questions about whether the planes will ever be bought.