Thursday, April 25, 2013

Crunching the F-35 Numbers. It's Anything You Want.

There's one thing F-35 pilots won't be seeing as much as they'd like - the inside of an F-35.   Instead they'll be spending a good deal more time pretending to be inside an F-35, in a simulator inside some cavernous hangar.

Now how the balance between actual stick and rudder time and simulator time is struck will depend on a lot of factors, some of them political.

One of the big political issues of the day, at least to prospective purchasers and operators of the F-35 light attack bomber, is the cost of operating the warplanes.   Some critics seem to think they'll be very expensive to fly.

U.S. Air Force general Chris Bogdan recently told nervous Dutch legislators that the F-35 would be barely 10% costlier than the hourly flying costs of their F-16s.  What's that old line - figures don't lie but liars figure? 

When it comes to crunching the F-35 numbers there are a lot of figures to be fiddled with.

Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall says the cost-per-flying-hour figure for the F-35A recently provided by the stealthy fighter’s program executive officer to The Netherlands is more aggressive than the official figure that will go next month to Congress.

“It is with a certain set of assumptions,” Kendall told reporters during a roundtable April 24 at the Pentagon, that Bogdan arrived at that figure. “I’m not sure we want to use that set of assumptions.”

The figure forthcoming to Congress next month, however, will be lower than that provided in last year’s selected acquisition report (SAR) to Capitol Hill, he says. That report cited the F-35A flying hour cost at $31.9 thousand versus $22.5 thousand for the F-16 C/D.

He says that there are at least six different ways to calculate F-35 cost per flying hour, depending on what assumptions go into the figure. And, it can be misleading. If you fly a fleet less – as the F-35 is expected to be used owing to advances in simulators – the per-hour cost goes up. But, the overall ownership price may be as much or less than legacy fleets.

“The question that I think matters is what is the cost of ownership?” Kendall says. “What is it going to cost you to have comparable levels of readiness for that aircraft? … And, that is going to vary by country.” This depends on how much each operator flies the aircraft, how many spares are procured and what level of skilled maintainers are used for specific tasks, among other things.

The Aviation Week story makes clear there is an enormous amount of leeway if one wants to manipulate the numbers for the F-35.  And it turns out that Canada is saddled with a government that likes nothing better.

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