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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon estimates that it will still cost about $1 trillion to operate a fleet of 2,443 F-35 fighter jets over the next 50 years, but is continuing to analyze how to drive that staggering sum down, a top U.S. Marine Corps official told Reuters.
Lieutenant General Terry Robling, deputy Marine Corps commandant for aviation, said top defense officials agreed last week to continue low-rate production of the new radar-evading warplane built by Lockheed Martin Corp, while keeping a close eye on the cost of maintaining and operating the new jets.
“Everybody was on board with … the program,” Robling told Reuters aboard a military aircraft on Saturday after a ceremony involving three F-35B jets at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. “We understand the costs are high. We understand that we need to do something, we need to make decisions down the road.”
Robling said the cost estimate would likely decline in coming years as more jets were built and flown, reducing the reliance on comparison data from other aircraft programs.
Unless the estimates do come down substantially, the Pentagon may have to decide to buy fewer airplanes, reduce the number of anticipated flight hours, or skip adding certain capabilities to the plane, Robling said, although he noted that decision point could still be five to 10 years off.
The estimated cost just to develop and buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is around $382 billion, but that number could increase somewhat when the Pentagon reports the cost of its major acquisition programs to Congress next month.
Defense officials say the cost of the program will increase somewhat since the Pentagon is postponing orders for 179 planes for five years to allow more testing and limit the number of costly retrofits to already produced planes.
The delays and budget pressures at home are prompting eight international partners who are helping fund the F-35 development — Britain, Italy, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Turkey, Canada and the Netherlands — to rethink their orders as well.
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