Plans to test a Lockheed Martin F-35C aboard a US aircraft carrier in November are on track, but both aircraft scheduled to deploy to the Pacific may not be capable of taking off and landing from the ship.

The C-model F-35 will be the US Navy’s carrier-based version of the jet and will be the last to enter service in 2018, following the Marine Corps and air force variants. Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, speaking at a meeting of the programme’s joint executive steering board in Oslo, Norway, said the deployment to the USS Nimitz in the Pacific Ocean was on track despite lagging software development and flight restrictions resulting from a June engine fire that damaged an F-35A prior to a training flight.

However, work is ongoing to determine if both aircraft slated to deploy will be fully capable of performing carrier launches and landings, Bogdan says.

“We have some work to do as we lead up to that point in November,” he says. “That work we’re doing now will decide whether both airplanes that go to the ship will be capable of doing arrestments and catapult launches or only one of them will be and the other airplane we will leave on the deck to do logistics testing.”

“The November deployment will happen. It will most likely happen with two airplanes. Whether both airplanes will be fully capable of doing all the work remains to be seen,” he says.

The JESB convenes every six months and includes representatives from the F-35 joint program office (JPO), all three US military services that are buying the jet and acquisition officials from the programme’s eight partner nations. The September meeting was overshadowed by a recent US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report criticising the JPO’s estimations of the lifecycle costs for the aircraft.

“The annual F-35 operating and support (O&S) costs are estimated to be considerably higher than the combined annual costs of several legacy aircraft,” the GAO report says. While the F-15C/D, F-16C/D, AV-8B and F-18A-D will cost a combined $11.1 billion over their service lives, the F-35 will cost $19.9 billion, the report says. While the Defense Department has begun cost-saving efforts to bring total per-jet lifecycle cost down, the JPO did not base its current assumptions on the service’s actual budgets and therefore “may not be representative of what the services can afford”.

“In addition, DOD has not fully addressed several issues that have an effect on affordability and operational readiness, including aircraft reliability and technical-data rights, which could affect the development of the sustainment strategy,” the report says.

Bogdan says the GAO was given eight months of open access to the JPO’s records to form its analysis, but dismissed the criticisms as based on assumptions that could “greatly change” within the 50-year service life of the aircraft.

“From my point of view, as the director of the F-35 programme, I am less concerned about cost estimates that occur 50 years from now, because those are based on a whole lot of assumptions and if you change even a little bit of those assumptions, those cost estimates change greatly,” he says.

“What’s more important to me is what we are doing today, when we have 150 airplanes, to reduce the overall lifecycle cost of the airplane for when we have 3,000 of them.”

Plans to bring the per-aircraft cost down to $80 million by 2019 are heavily reliant now on a production ramp to fulfill international orders.

Despite recent setbacks, Bogdan says current partners and potential foreign military sales customers remain committed. Discussions with Israel to increase that nation’s buy are progressing and could be finalised within months, Bogdan says. Norway’s first two aircraft are in assembly with delivery scheduled for late 2015.

“We have other nations out there who have been interested and are discussing potential buys of the F-35 despite the fact that we have an engine setback or in the past we’ve had some software problems,” Bogdan says. “Most of them look past those immediate problems because those immediate problems are not unlike anything you’ll find in most any airplane development programme."