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Hill Air Force Base trying to maintain F-35, lower costs

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Rick Egan | Tribune file photo Dignitaries and workers at Hill Air Force base get their first look at the the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter on Friday. The F-35A is a multi-variant, multi-role 5th Generation Fighter, and will undergo organic depot modification work at Hill AFB.

By nate carlisle

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 02 2014 09:37AM
Updated Mar 3, 2014 10:31PM

Hill Air Force Base • Hill Air Force Base will celebrate a milestone in the coming days when the first F-35 stealth fighter jet rolls out of its maintenance hangars, powers up its engines and flies back into service.

How quickly — and at what cost — more F-35s leave Hill and return to home bases around the worldwill be a key issue for the weapon that is expected to cost more than a trillion dollars over its life span.

The U.S. military and its allies are trying to reduce the cost of the F-35. Some of those savings could be found at Hill.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Brent Baker Sr., commander of the Ogden Air Logistics Complex, said the pressure to save money is probably the greatest he has seen in his 35-year career.

"I look at it as an opportunity to return dollars to the war fighter," Baker said, "and save money for the taxpayers."

While much attention has been focused on the squadron of 72 F-35s Hill will receive next year, Baker and the airmen and civilians underneath him represent the base’s other contribution to the aircraft.

The logistics complex is responsible for what the Air Force calls "depot maintenance." Airmen and civilian employees there will be replacing or modifying wings, landing gear and conducting other repairs and testing that cannot be done in the field.

The complex has been conducting maintenance on one F-35 since September. That aircraft, with its radar-evading technology, is expected to leave Hill within a week and return to service at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Baker said.

Earlier this month, a Dutch F-35 arrived at Hill. Another F-35 from the Netherlands is expected this summer, and sometime this year the U.S. Air Force will send four more F-35s to the logistics complex.

The F-35 is meant to replace existing aircraft in the U.S. Navy, Marines Corps and Air Force, including the F-16s that are currently at Hill and the A-10s that also receive depot maintenance there. The U.S. and its allies are not just worried about the cost of purchasing F-35s but also of maintaining them. Those concerns could have a ripple effect.

According to a March 2013 Government Accountability Office report, if any one of the allies buys fewer F-35s than expected, it will increase the cost for those jets the other partners order.

In one scenario described in the GAO report, if the U.S. were to reduce its expected F-35 orders by about two-fifths, the price of each aircraft would jump by 9 percent.

The report also describes the staggering cost of operating and maintaining the U.S. F-35 fleet — $18.2 billion a year. That’s 60 percent more than the annual operation and maintenance cost of all the aircraft the F-35 is replacing. The Pentagon has said that is too high, and the F-35s contractor, Lockheed Martin, has agreed to search for ways to reduce the purchase and operating-and-maintenance costs.

Baker, a southern Illinois native who has spent his Air Force career on the ground maintaining and getting supplies to aircraft, says Lockheed Martin is a partner in trying to find cost savings, as are the four personnel from the Netherlands who are training at Hill while the Dutch F-35 undergoes depot maintenance. The Netherlands is paying Lockheed Martin for the maintenance as part of the agreement that country signed with the U.S. to assist in the F-35s development.

The F-35s are scheduled to be at the logistics complex for 137 days before being returned to service.

"We eventually want to make improvements on that and drive those days down," Baker said.

For example, one F-35 modification requires workers at the logistics complex to replace the root rib with a titanium splice. The root rib is an aluminum part located where the leading edge of the wing meets the fuselage. In 2011, it was revealed that the root rib was failing about three times faster than expected.

The fix is expected to take 45 days on each aircraft, according to the Pentagon office that oversees the F-35. If the logistics complex can make the modifications faster, while doing it safely and correctly, it means less money spent.

But Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional staffer who is the director of the Straus Military Reform Project in Washington, D.C., not only doubts savings can be found in depot maintenance but also says the Pentagon’s maintenance cost estimates for the F-35 are too low.

Wheeler said the F-35 has similarities to the F-22, which costs more than $60,000 an hour to fly. The Air Force has been comparing the F-35 to the F-16, which costs about $22,000 an hour.

"I’m sure people will be hunting desperately for efficiencies," Wheeler said in an interview, "but they are planning on a generic support cost for this airplane that is half or less than what I expect it will be."

Any savings on the F-35 will also count toward a wider goal for the Air Force Sustainment Center of finding $1 billion in savings this fiscal year. The Ogden Air Logistics Complex is part of the Sustainment Center.

Baker said he is thinking about the F-35’s future for the Air Force. The U.S. is supposed to buy new F-35s through 2037, and the aircraft is expected to be in combat for years after that.

"There are kids in school now," Baker said, "that will someday work on the F-35 here in the complex."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle

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