Air Force accused of wrong cost estimates to keep F-16s flying

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has faulted the Air Force and the Navy on cost estimates that were “not fully credible” to extend the life of front-line F-16 and F-18 fighter jets while delays in the production of the next generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter keep the older planes in the fleet.

Air Force officials with the F-16 program at Hill Air Force Base in Utah have defended the estimates saying they looked at the best data available and believe the figures accurately reflect costs for the 300 aircraft approved for extended service.

“The validity of our point estimate we feel was extremely accurate,” said Jay Topick, legacy F-16 service life extension program manager at Hill Air Force Base.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has the responsibility for the acquisition, research and development and testing of the F-16 program. The Ohio Air National Guard’s 178th Fighter Wing flew F-16s through 2010 at the Springfield Air National Guard Base. The unit now remotely pilots Predator drones.

The GAO said the Air Force did not include total costs if more F-16s were included in the program and the estimate wasn’t compared to an independent assessment. The Air Force calculated the cost to extend the lifespan of 300 F-16Cs and D models and adding improved radar at $2.6 billion through 2022.

The GAO said the military should have calculated the total cost for up to 650 F-16s at an expense of $5.5 billion. The Air Force has said the program was only approved for 300. Air Force officials told the Dayton Daily News an independent estimate was conducted.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Hobson, who advocated keeping the F-16 unit in his district flying, said while in Congress he expressed concern with how quickly the Air Force decided to pull F-16s off the flight line without the F-35 ready to replace the venerable fighter.

The GAO report did not surprise him. “It’s another situation where we are going to have added cost on an old airplane, but a good airplane that has performed well,” he said. “Too often that’s the case with weapon systems and that’s what gets a lot of people in the Congress frustrated with the people who present these budgets. It’s very difficult in these economic times to plan when you have these kinds of bumps in the road.”

The Air Force has more than 1,000 F-16 Fighting Falcons in its fleet, or one-third of the jet fighters in operation with air forces around the world, said Col. Mark Mol, F-16 program director at Hill Air Force Base. The service life extension could add 2,000-flight hours on aircraft that have spent about 8,000 hours in the air, or add six to eight years of service. Potentially, however, the Air Force could extend the total to 4,000 hours, Topick said.

The Navy estimated it would cost nearly $2.2 billion through 2018 to extend the lifespan of 150 F-18A-D model Hornets in both the Navy and the Marine Corps. The average F-18 in service is about 20 years old. The work would add 1,400 hours, or about five years, to the life of the planes. The Navy could expand the program to 280 Hornets, and plans to buy 41 new F-18E and F models to compensate for the delay in F-35 production, according to the GAO. However, Navy Lt. Courtney Hillson said the service is in the process of extending the lifespan of all F-18 A-D models.

In total, the Navy and Marine Corps have 621 “legacy” Hornets and 457 newer Super Hornets, which average about six years old. GE Aviation in the Miami Valley produces spare parts for the F-18.

In the Navy’s case, the GAO said the price estimates did not include the expense of additional work on F-18s beyond service life extensions. The Navy should have conducted an independent cost assessment, the report said.

Hillson referred specific questions about the report to the Defense Department.

The Defense Department told GAO it concurred with the report’s recommendations. The federal watchdog office recommended including costs: to extend the life and capability of up to 650 F-16s; additional work on 150 F-18s and independent cost estimates for both programs.

Plans to extend the service lives of existing fighter aircraft follow a GAO report this year that determined the cost to buy 2,457 next generation F-35 stealth fighters reached $395.7 billion, or 42 percent more since 2007.