President Barack Obama has a variety of options to save on the near-term costs of the F-35. The president could cancel the F-35 and substitute cheaper, upgraded current-generation fighters, including the F-16 Block 60, the F/A-18 E/F, and unmanned systems such as the armed MQ-9 Reaper drone. Yet strike aircraft are necessary in current conflicts and the U.S. fighter fleet is aging. A more moderate approach would entail slowing procurement of the F-35, allowing development and additional testing to proceed, and substituting cheaper, older fighters, or unmanned systems, in the interim as needed.
The Defense Appropriation Act allocated $10.8 billion for 30 aircraft plus RDT&E in FY 2010 including an additional $465 million for the alternative engine. If the Obama administration opts to cut its 2011 purchase by half, but continue development funding, it could save approximately $3.4 billion next year. This move would ensure that the program advances, even as production of the planes slows. The administration could also opt to replace these 15 planes with MQ-9 Reaper drones, which can carry up to four 500-pound guided bombs or eight Hellfire missiles, and have greater persistence over the battlefield than manned fighters, while carrying comparable payloads. Each Reaper costs approximately $20.4 million, meaning the administration could still expect to save $3.6 billion next year by cutting its JSF order by half, cancelling the alternate engine and procuring more reaper drones.
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