US military officials have launched a new affordability initiative for the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme that targets labour costs and manufacturing efficiency, says Vice Adm Mat Winter, the F-35 programme executive officer.

Two previous rounds of cost-saving efforts have focused on reducing the cost of components or repairs, as part of a larger effort to reduce unit prices to $80-85 million scheduled to be purchased in fiscal year 2019.

But now US military officials will dispatch teams to suppliers to evaluate labour costs and manufacturing flow times, with a mandate to find efficiencies, Winter says. To cite a hypothetical example, Winter described an F-35 final assembly worker that spends 3.5h on an 8h shift waiting to receive parts or tools.

The labour cost and manufacturing review comes as top Department of Defense officials zero in on the F-35 programme to find cost savings. Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, a former top Boeing manufacturing executive, has pledged to find a way to reduce F-35 costs.

In some ways, the new effort by the JPO echoes steps taken during the first round of Boeing’s partnership for success programme, which saw the company’s managers visit suppliers and identify ways to improve efficiency on components and parts.

The cost to build and support the F-35 has become a growing concern for DoD leaders. The Pentagon has determined that the cost to sustain the current fleet of about 280 operational F-35s is unsustainable, even as the JPO readies to acquire hundreds more over the next few years, Winter says.

“The cost ratio today, if it’s the same 280 to 800-plus aircraft by 2021 we will be unaffordable,” he says. “The services budgets won’t be able to sustain that.”

In response, the JPO has decided to expand the use of government depots to repair F-35 subsystems. The military’s depot network already handles repairs for airframe structure and Pratt & Whitney F135 engines, but F-35 squadrons rely on contractors to repair 68 subsystems on the aircraft, such as the auxiliary power unit and the power and thermal management system, Winter says.

By shifting subsystem repair work to the depots, the contractors will have more capacity to reduce a critical shortage of spare parts in the operational fleet, where mission capability rates for the F-35 average about 51%, Winter says.

The emphasis on cost savings comes as the F-35 nears a critical milestone. Only about 20 flight test points remain to complete testing of Block 3F software, marking the end of an 11-year flight test campaign during the system development and demonstration phase, Winter says.