The US Air Force estimates that the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter will cost about $32,000 per flying hour to operate, the service's top uniformed official says.
"I think we've normalised to a couple of numbers now, about $25,000 per flying hour for the [Lockheed] F-16 C/D model and about $32,000 roughly for the F-35," says USAF chief of staff Gen Mark Welsh. "That number may continue to adjust itself slightly as we decide what factors are in or not, but that gives us an idea now."
The cost numbers have come down from original estimates, Welsh says, and as the USAF gains more experience in operating the F-35 it will glean a better understanding of the type's long-term operating costs.
Welsh cautions, however, that the aircraft is not yet flying operationally-representative sorties. "We're not flying in a fully operational mode yet, it's still in test," he says. "We're just starting our training programmes, so that data has to mature. Just like every airplane programme that has a projected cost for support and sustainment, we don't really know until we support and sustain it for a while."
There remains some maintenance equipment that needs to complete development, such the F-35's autonomic logistics information system.
"Some of the equipment that will help with that process is still being developed, and once we get more fidelity on that over the next couple of years I think we'll have a much better feel for what the airplane's going to cost," Welsh says.