By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON | Wed Aug 21, 2013 9:54pm EDT
(Reuters) - The U.S. government has slashed its estimate for the long-term operating costs ofLockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets by more than 20 percent to under $1 trillion, according to a senior defense official, a move that could boost international support for the program.
The Pentagon has been under pressure for over a year to revise its estimate of maintaining a fleet of more than 2,000 F-35s over 55 years, with industry and military officials arguing that many of the assumptions were outdated and off base.
The new estimate of $857 billion could help ensure the new plane turns out to be as affordable as advertised and comes days after South Korea determined that only a bid by Boeing Co for its F-15 Silent Eagle came in below a $7.4 billion price ceiling for its plan to buy 60 new fighter aircraft.
Lockheed's F-35 and the Eurofighter Typhoon remain in the running, but Boeing's pricing marked a step toward winning the contract, according to sources close to the process. A final decision is expected in mid-September.
It was not immediately clear what impact the lower F-35 operating estimate would have on the South Korean tender, but U.S. officials said Seoul could decide to restart the competition and ask for new bids.
The Pentagon's revision reflects data about the plane's performance based on over 7,000 hours of test flights and revised assumptions about how it will be used and maintained, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The estimate was provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee by the Pentagon's F-35 program chief, Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, the official said. A revision had been flagged in June when the Pentagon's acquisition chief said he had expected a review to result in lower operating and maintenance costs.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the costliest weapons program in U.S. history. The Pentagon estimates it will cost $392 billion to develop and build 2,443 of the new jets for use by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.