Washington: The cost of buying, and operating, a new fleet of JSF F-35 Lightning II jet fighters for the US military is nearing $1 trillion, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit programme. According to the audit, the Lightning II programme has been dogged by delays, manufacturing inefficiencies and price increases.
The state-of-the-art series of aircraft, known as the Joint Strike Fighter F-35 Lightning II, is being developed for the US Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. It is also being developed in partnership with some foreign nations, which have so far sunk $4.8 billion in development costs.
The aircraft is designed to replace the F-16 Falcon and the A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft. A short takeoff and vertical landing version will also replace the Marine Corps operated F/A-18C/D and AV-8B Harrier aircraft. The Navy will buy a model designed for operation on aircraft carriers.
The GAO, which conducts an annual assessment of the programme on behalf of the US Congress, said that the costs of the Lightning II programme have gone up by $23 billion over the past year.
According to the GAO's report, almost $300 billion would be needed to acquire 2,458 aircraft for the three US services, whilst $650 billion would be required to operate and maintain them.
Operating costs, which were projected at $346 billion just a few years ago, have shot up because of changes in repair plans, revised costs for depot maintenance, higher fuel costs and increased fuel consumption.
The GAO's auditors said they expect development and procurement costs "to increase substantially and schedule pressures to worsen based on performance to date."
Fort Worth, Texas-based Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co is the prime contractor for the Lightning II.
In its report, the GAO says, "The contractor has extended manufacturing schedules several times, but test aircraft delivery dates continue to slip," the report states. "The flight test program has barely begun, but faces substantial risks with reduced assets as design and manufacturing problems continue to cause delays that further compress the time available to complete development."
It criticizes both the military and Lockheed for stepping into the development and manufacturing phase of the aircraft before stabilising key technologies and design and moving into production before flight tests confirmed that the aircraft was ready.