Cancel the Navy and Marine Corps' Joint Strike Fighters and Replace Those Aircraft with F/A-18E/Fs

The Department of the Navy currently plans to purchase 680 Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) in two variants: the F-35B short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft for the Marine Corps and the F-35C carrier-based aircraft for the Navy. (The Air Force is purchasing F-35As, which are conventional land-based fighters.) The department has already placed orders for 53 F-35s through 2011 and anticipates purchasing 627 more F-35s from 2012 through 2026. The department has estimated that, including costs to complete development, the remaining cost for those purchases will amount to $82 billion. The F-35B and F-35C are still in the developmental stage and will not enter service for several years.

Under this option, the Department of the Navy would cancel its plans for further development and fielding of the F-35B and F-35C and instead purchase additional F/A-18E/F fighters currently in production. If those aircraft were purchased at the same rates planned for the department's F-35s, the option would decrease outlays by $12 billion over the next five years and save nearly $18 billion through 2021. The projected savings take into account increased costs for the 660 F-35As the Air Force plans to purchase from 2012 through 2021. (Because the option would affect the JSF program as a whole--resulting in reduced annual production rates and fewer total aircraft being purchased--the Air Force's costs for the F-35A would increase accordingly.) Including the higher estimated costs for the Air Force's F-35As in years after 2021 reduces the projected long-term net savings under this option to $6 billion.

The Congressional Budget Office's estimate of savings under this option is based on data from the latest available Selected Acquisition Report. Since that report was prepared, the Department of Defense has announced that the JSF program has experienced substantial cost growth and schedule delays. CBO lacked sufficient details about those developments to produce a revised estimate of the savings that could be realized under this option. Savings from canceling the program would probably be significantly greater than CBO's estimate for the entire JSF production run (now likely to include purchases beyond 2026 for the Navy and Marine Corps, if production quantities remain unchanged). How much the potential savings over the next 5 or 10 years would change depends on how purchase schedules change--specifically, to what extent purchases are postponed to accommodate schedule delays and cost increases.

An argument for this option is that because of the F/A-18E/F's relatively new design, that aircraft is capable of meeting likely threats in the foreseeable future. In addition, the costs of producing the F/A-18E/F are well understood. Moreover, further delays in the production of F-35s could pose significant difficulties because the Navy is already projecting that production rates will not be sufficient to match the retirement rate of F/A-18A/B/C/D fighters, which are approaching the end of their structural service life. A middle course-- augmenting F-35B/C production with enough F/A-18E/F purchases to maintain inventory--would require higher than planned near-term funding to support the simultaneous production of both aircraft.

An argument against this option is that even though the F/A-18E/F was designed to incorporate stealth features that the smaller F/A-18C/D does not have, it is still far less stealthy than the F-35. Consequently, canceling the F-35 could limit naval aviation operations early in a conflict before enemy air defenses have been suppressed. That shortcoming could be mitigated if the Navy's efforts to develop stealthy unmanned combat aircraft are successful. Another disadvantage of the option is that substituting F/A-18s for the STOVL F-35B would mean that are currently offered by the AV-8B Harrier. In that the Marine Corps could no longer operate fixed-the absence of support by carrier- or land-based aircraft, wing fighters from the amphibious assault ships in naval the strike groups would have to rely on armed helicopters expeditionary strike groups or from locations ashore that that do not have the same range, speed, payload, and cannot accommodate conventional fighters--capabilities survivability as the F-35.