The F-35, America’s next-generation multirole fighter workhorse, is notorious for the long string of severe cost overruns and delays which have plagued the program since its inception. These unsavory shortcomings have contributed to intense press scrutiny and eye-grabbing headlines, many seizing on the F-35’s status as the world’s most expensive weapons system.
As a result, many people (understandably) believe the F-35 to be an expensive aircraft on a per-unit basis. In other words, people think the F-35 is a “bad deal” relative to other planes on the market. However, as this article will attempt to demonstrate, there is an important distinction between the program’s cost overall and the per-unit value of the aircraft, and the F-35’s flyaway cost is rather low relative to the capabilities it offers.
That the F-35 is the most expensive weapons program in history is a true statement, but the massive costs of the program are due mostly to the Department of Defense’s decision to procure one airplane for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Even had there been no developmental issues (a virtually impossible proposition for a project of this scale), the Joint Strike Fighter probably still would have been history’s most expensive weapons program due to its high-end capabilities and the large quantity of aircraft needed to populate the fleets of all three branches.
Furthermore, the ~$1.4 trillion figure often cited when criticizing the program is unusual in that it projects the F-35’s total costs across all three branches and over the program’s entire half-century-plus lifecycle (not just the cost of buying the aircraft). It also includes inflation, which accounts for over a third of the figure. As the DoD is quick to note, projecting inflation and lifecycle costs until the aircraft’s retirement in 2070 involves a significant measure of extrapolation and uncertainty. This metric is akin to evaluating a car based on not only the sticker price but all of the fuel, oil, tires, repairs, car washes, interest, inflationary losses, etc. associated with the vehicle until it is retired. While it is useful for quantifying the F-35’s cumulative budgetary impact, the figure has the unintended effect of confusing those not familiar with the program and producing a shocking number which can be thrown around with little explanation.
In addition, the total program cost is of little use when comparing the F-35 to other aircraft, as many of the factors in the total-cost figure have little to do with the F-35, inflation being a prime example. In order to assess the relative value of the F-35 in a more immediate and tangible sense, other metrics such as flyaway cost (the price of purchasing a completed aircraft, minus spare parts and R&D) are valuable.
Before delving into the specifics, it must be noted that the F-35 exists in three variants. The F-35A is designed for conventional takeoff and landing from land-based paved runways. It is by far the most common variant and is the type being purchased by most of the program’s foreign customers. The F-35B features a swiveling jet nozzle and a lift fan, allowing takeoff from very short runways without a catapult. Because the F-35B has no real competitors on the international market, its value proposition is hard to assess. The F-35C is designed for operations from conventional carriers equipped with both catapults and arresting gear. Its wing area is 25% larger than the F-35A and B, improving low-speed lift.
The F-35’s flyaway cost has been dropping steadily as production ramps up, bringing it in line with prices for other fighters on the international market. February 2017’s low-rate initial production (LRIP) lot 10, the most recent contract, will deliver 55 aircraft to the United States and 35 to international customers for a total cost of $8.9 billion USD. This works out to $94.6 million per F-35A, $122.8 million per F-35B, and $121.8 million per F-35C, according to Jane’s. In the future, this figure could drop even further; Lockheed has projected (and many independent analysts agree) that the F-35A’s price could drop to around $80 million once full-rate production kicks off. The cost of the other two variants should fall similarly as the Marines and Navy ramp up their orders.
While ~$80 million for an F-35A may sound expensive, this price is competitive with the flyaway costs of other modern fighters. For example, Qatar recently signed a deal with the United Kingdom for the purchase of Eurofighter Typhoons at $122 million per aircraft. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a carrier-based aircraft which has also been offered as a land-based fighter, clocks in at $70 million per unit when ordered by the US Navy. And even modern Russian planes such as the Su-35 go for around $83 million per aircraft. The only planes selling for much lower than ~$70 million are refurbished, are relatively dated Russian fighters, or are light budget aircraft (such as the JF-17 and HAL Tejas).
In summary, US allies are paying about as much for their F-35s as they would for any other high-end Western jet and getting more capabilities for their dollar. As aviation expert Richard Aboulafia said, “[The Eurofighter] has the costs of an F-35 without the modern features.” This statement is true not only of the Eurofighter but also of many other new fourth-gen aircraft. The F-35’s relatively low flyaway cost can be attributed to its large production run, a testament to the role of international customers in the program’s success.
While some fourth-generation planes such as the Super Hornet do offer operating costs below the F-35, their capabilities are far inferior. The F-35’s exact specifications and performance figures are classified, but its powerful AN/APG-81 radar, sensor fusion, advanced datalinks and software, stealth, internal weapons carriage, and good combat radius on internal fuel give it a formidable edge over last-gen aircraft. While some of the F-35’s avionics are experiencing issues, leading to ongoing concerns over capabilities, software block 3F should remedy the bugs and lay many of the problems to rest.
Results from Red Flag 17-1 suggest that the F-35 is highly effective against last-gen aircraft and air defense systems. Even the F-35’s dogfighting performance, which has been much-maligned, is not nearly as bad as many say; pilots claim the plane’s low-speed and high angle of attack performance is superior to the F-16, and now that they have learned to leverage the aircraft’s strengths, within-visual-range outcomes have improved markedly.
Of course, none of this should minimize concerns surrounding the F-35’s cost overruns and continuing developmental issues, which deserve criticism from taxpayers and military leaders alike. Yet, stakeholders must remember that, despite the program’s serious setbacks and scandals, the F-35 is not nearly as expensive as many headlines (and popular sentiment) would suggest. Rather, its full-rate flyaway cost will be in line with other high-end Western fighters, a fair price to pay for capabilities which cannot yet be found aboard any other aircraft on the market.