The Marines want to get their hands on more F-35Bs – with a current cost of about $123 million each – at a faster rate than the current schedule calls for.
The Corps’s top aviator, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, is quoted by Defense News as saying Wednesday: "Bottom line is we've had a very anemic ramp, so we've been holding onto the older airplanes longer.” He said that if the Marines got the jets faster, “I guarantee we'd put them into play very, very quickly.”
Davis said that the Marines have an aging fleet of aircraft that in the light of budget cuts and spending delays is difficult to keep airborne. According to the Marine Times, Davis said that out of 1,065 aircraft, 439 – or less than 50 percent -- were operational as of Dec. 31, 2016.
From fiscal 2018 through 2021, the Marines are scheduled to get 20 F-35Bs a year. Davis wants to jack that number up to about 37 Joint Strike Fighters a year.
The F-35B is the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter, designed specifically for the Marines. According to the new $8.5 billion contract between the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin, the Marine version of the F-35 costs $122.8 million apiece, though that figure is expected to drop as manufacturing efficiencies kick in. An additional 17 jets per year would cost a bit more than $2 billion at the current rate.
On Monday at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, President Trump claimed credit for helping to bring down the cost of the F-35, saying the U.S. saved more than $600 million after he got involved in negotiations with Lockheed Martin. However, those savings may have been in the works before he took office.
The Marines are also looking to increase their numbers overall. In written testimony to Congress on Tuesday, Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters said the service needs to raise its fighting force to 194,000, the Marine Times said. The fiscal 2017 budget pushes up the troop level to 185,000 from 182,000, though that increase has not yet been funded.
One big plus the Marines may have in its favor as it seeks to gain strength: The Defense Department is now in the hands of a former four-star Marine general, James Mattis.