Selective Arithmetic to Hide the F-35’s True Costs

Project On Government Oversight (POGO): BY DAN GRAZIER | FILED UNDER ANALYSIS | OCTOBER 21, 2020

POGO imageLast month, while Lockheed Martin and the government negotiated a major contract modification for the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, stories appeared in the trade presses with familiar headlines: “The F-35 Is Getting Cheaper: Is It Time To Buy More Stealth Fighters?” and “F-35 program costs are evolving, and these savings matter.” Earlier this year, while Congress considered a coronavirus relief package that would have given the Pentagon $686 million for the F-35 program, we saw this story: “F-35 costs falling, Pentagon estimates indicate.”

As we’ve written before, when you look at the numbers, it is simply not the case that the F-35’s costs are falling—not this year, and not in years past.

Yet year after year, the media is full of stories and columns about the supposedly falling price of the F-35. In 2017, the press reported a price drop of 7.3% per aircraft compared to the previous year. In 2019, the press reported another lower price, from Lockheed Martin, of approximately $81 million per plane just as Congress began work on the annual Pentagon budget. As we have seen in recent years, misleading claims about falling prices often surface when the decision-makers in Washington begin to turn their attention toward the next year’s defense budget, as an effort to convince Congress to add more aircraft in the next authorization.

The story that appeared during the relief package negotiations portrays a particularly rosy forecast by putting the cost of an F-35 at $57.4 million, with a parenthetical admitting that figure doesn’t include the engine.

But in fact, across the services the real cost per plane—engine and all—is something in the neighborhood of double that figure.