Loren Thompson, military policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said the estimate is "made up" because it forecasts what inflation and fuel costs will be decades from now. He adds that it would cost the military three to four times more to keep today's fighters flying. "Nobody ever explains that to Congress."
But supporters and critics alike say the escalating price tag represents an inescapable roadblock that Congress must face. The government's track record is clear: The more a plane costs, the fewer they buy.
The Pentagon's aircraft procurement efforts have been fraught with cost overruns, delays and cuts. Two decades ago, officials originally wanted 648 F-22 fighter jets for $139 million per plane. Eventually, the military ended up with only 188 at a price tag of $412 million each.
Before that, the Pentagon wanted 132 new B-2 stealth bombers at about $500 million per plane. It ultimately bought 21 at $2.1 billion each.
The cost per F-35, about $161 million, could keep rising and ultimately push it into a death spiral as well.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), one of the plane's strongest boosters in Congress, acknowledged problems ahead.
"History repeats itself," he said in a recent interview. "At some point, some members of Congress are going to demand that we buy less F-35s. It's inevitable."
Subcontractors across California have spent millions of dollars preparing for what is expected to be decades of work on the F-35.
Northrop, for instance, has a new, $170-million assembly line in Palmdale. At the 1-million-square-foot complex, there are robots capable of carrying multi-ton plane sections; high-precision laser cutters; and its very own internal GPS system. It will ultimately be capable of producing one complete fuselage for any of the three F-35 versions without interruption.
The assembly line completed its first fuselage last month and sent it to Lockheed's Fort Worth plant for final assembly.
"We're on track now," said Steve O'Bryan, a Lockheed vice president. "I'm not trying to give this a rosy view or anything: We've had our share of development challenges."
With test flights only about 20% completed, O'Bryan said Lockheed is churning out two F-35s a month and plans to deliver four a month by summer.
Workers find the plane's ups and downs nerve-racking. Edwin Salas, a bespectacled 49-year-old inspector with Northrop, works with his 27-year-old son on the program in Palmdale. He's glad that the sections are beginning to be shipped out to Texas.
"We've had our hurdles, but things are being ironed out," he said. "I'm looking to retire on this program. God willing, my son will too."