The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) have said the F-35 program sustainment costs have increased by 44%, from $1.1trn in 2018 to $1.58trn in 2023, even as use of the F-35, and its availability, have decreased, with the F-35 Joint Program Office reporting a 21% reduction in flight hours across the programme. 

The F-35 Lightning II aircraft is the Department of Defense’s (DoD) most costly weapon system, with an acquisition cost of $442bn for the 630 in-service fighter jets, and the approximately 2,500 more F-35 aircraft it intends to purchase by the mid 2040’s.

Intended to be in service until 2088, the F-35, a sustainment cost of $1.58trn puts the total estimated cost to buy, operate, and sustain the at $2trn.

The original sustainment target for a single F-35 aircraft for one year was $4.1m, in 2018. The GAO report states that the services have made progress in meeting their affordability targets, identifying the main drivers as a decrease in the number of flight hours by the services broadly, and for the the US Air Force (USAF) alone, an increase in the value of the sustainment target, shifting the goal to $6.8m per aircraft per year in 2023. 

However, closer inspection of the GAO conclusions show that while the USAF is increasing the target for sustainment costs, it is also reducing the number of flight hours, from 230 hours in 2020 to 187 hours in 2023. The other services that employ the F-35 are either maintaining the same flight hours, in the case of the Navy, or increasing the number of flight hours, in the case of the Marine Corps, moving from 253 hours in 2020 to 336 hours in 2023.

The GAO finds that the overall availability of the F-35 has trended downwards between 2018 and 2023, with none of the variants of the platform meeting the availability goals, judged as the percentage of time the platform can perform one of its tasked missions.

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In 2019, the GAO projected that the cost per year for each aircraft in the Air Force F-35A programme would be $7.8m, and $9.1m for the Marine Corp F-35B programme, $7.9m for the Marine Corp F-35C programme, and $9.9m for the Navy F-35C programme, in constant 2012 dollars.