The price of the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) may have dropped by as much as 12.5% in just over a year, according to figures quoted by Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, head of the Pentagon's JSF programme office.
Speaking to reporters in Canberra on 12 March, Gen Bogdan cited a price of USD80-85 million per aircraft in 2019 dollars, inclusive of engine, manufacturer's profit and inflation.
"We're pretty confident we are going to get there", he said, noting that this figure could fall should further orders be received but could also rise if any existing customers cancelled or deferred planned acquisitions.
Australia has said it will buy up to 100 F-35As but to date has committed only to two, each budgeted at AUD130 million (USD117 million). These will be delivered in the United States later in 2014 and in early 2015 and remain there for testing and training. A decision on the purchase of an early tranche of 12 or more F-35As is anticipated in April.
Gen Bogdan said that beyond 2016, the JSF development schedule became "a little fuzzy".
"The development programme is supposed to end in October 2017 but I can tell you that if I don't do anything, if I just let the programme proceed on due course, that it would be four to six months late," he said. "I'll be doing everything I can with industry and our stakeholders to move that schedule back in, but the number one problem that is causing that delay is software".
F-35s can currently exchange information with other F-35s but by 2016 and beyond the aim was to allow the aircraft to receive and disseminate data to a wider audience from satellites, airborne warning aircraft, ground radar and other aircraft. "That's a really hard thing to do with software and there's some risk there", he said.
Gen Bogdan suggested Australia was in a good position to profit from the servicing of F-35s operated by other countries in the Pacific region. Australia had been advised it could service its own aircraft as it saw fit, but "what I would tell you is as the only partner in the Pacific, when it comes to the future of what we do with a lot of other F-35s in the region, I would tell you Australia is in a pretty good position, if you understand what I'm saying," he said.
Australia is the only one of the eight international partners in the JSF programme to be located in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan has ordered the JSF as its next-generation fighter aircraft through the US Foreign Military Sales channel while South Korea and Singapore, the latter a second-tier security co-operation participant in the programme, are considering whether to buy the aircraft.
"Potentially Australia, if it chose to ... could be a place where other F-35s could come for work. Absolutely," Gen Bogdan said.