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The future of the F-35 and the Air Force fighter fleet

The future of the F-35 and the U.S. Air Force fighter fleet
The future of the F-35 and the U.S. Air Force fighter fleet

The F-35A was designed to revolutionize fighter procurement for the Air Force.

It was going to take the missions of several aircraft and do it all. The maintenance was going to be cheaper and easier thanks to cutting-edge computer software. The list of planes it was going to replace was long. But the operating costs for the aircraft, which is around $36,000 per hour, are still around $10,000 more expensive than older fighters in the Air Force inventory.

"The biggest cost challenge that we face in the airplane is the life-cycle sustainment cost of the jet," said Brig. Gen. David Abba, director of the Air Force's F-35 integration office. "What I can tell you is the Air Force is laser-focused on that."

Although the F-35 remains an incredibly capable aircraft, the Air Force appears to have decided to diversify its fleet. The F-15EX — an upgraded version of the F-15 that first flew in the 1970s — is on the acquisition block, and the first F-15EX was delivered to the Air Force this month. Recent comments by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr. also pointed to the possibility of procuring a light fighter to be a replacement for the aging F-16. 

"The idea that because there are some affordability challenges that the USA is somehow going to just bail on this program is mad," said Justin Bronk, an air power and technology research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. "Of course, they have to consider the future fighter mix. It makes sense because the sums don't add up, and they haven't added up for a long time."

Watch the video above to find out more about the most expensive weapons system in history.