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An F-35 Lightning II flies alongside an F-16 Fighting Falcon June 25, 2015, at Luke AFB, Ariz. Courtesy photo.

The Air Force is not backing off from its requirement of 1,763 F-35As, but it wants the jet to be no more costly to operate than the F-16 it’s replacing, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Thursday. 

Meeting with defense reporters in Washington,  D.C., Goldfein acknowledged that F-35 support costs are much higher than the service expected or can afford in the long term—noting that the various user countries and services are “all very concerned about sustainment”—but he said it’s premature to start thinking about cutting the buy.

“It’s way too early to be talking about any curtailment of procurement … because anything we may be talking about is really well out into the future,” said Goldfein, adding that it’s “just not true” there is “any—any—intent on our part to go one aircraft below the current program of record, because that is what we require, today, to accomplish the strategy as it’s currently written.”

He added that, “I’m committed to the program of record,” which is 1,763 jets.

Though he did not specifically confirm press reports that USAF is looking at a reduction in F-35 procurement of 590 jets because sustainment costs are 38 percent greater than expected, Goldfein said, “We’re always having discussions” about buy rates and inventories.

While he initially said he wanted F-35 sustainment costs to be “close” or “comparable” to those of the F-16, later in the session he said he wanted them “at” F-16 levels. This is important, he said, because allied countries using the F-16 now are “used to spending about that amount of money on sustainment costs, so that’s our target.”

And while operations and support costs are “absolutely” a “major concern,” Goldfein said he’s optimistic a solution will be found because of the industry experience of Pentagon acquisition leaders such as Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and acquisition chief Ellen Lord.

Sustainment costs, contractor logistics support, spare parts, etc., are all “part of the negotiation” with Lockheed Martin, Goldfein said, noting that he feels an obligation to pay special attention to support costs: the Air Force will be the single largest customer for the F-35 and the other services and user countries look to USAF for leadership on the strike fighter.

Pressed on how the Air Force might adjust or recalculate its F-35 purchases, especially in light of new air superiority programs, Goldfein said the pacing of USAF’s buy is always in flux.

He said he has to “continually calculate the business case” that determine the point at which it is “actually more cost effective for me to buy more aircraft, faster, because they’re cheaper, and then I can use the money, if I have to, to retrofit them to upgrades. As opposed to: do I need to keep buying at a slower rate because the cost is so high that I can’t afford to do the retrofits.”