What does a fighter jet cost? A lot. How much is a lot? As much as it takes to defend a country and have the capability and capacity to fight and win a war. And as much as it costs to ensure that our men and women come home safely every time they fly.
How much is too much? Well, it is certainly not worth investing in an object or capability that is quickly overcome by newer technologies, rendered vulnerable by better counter capabilities or with the evolution of warfare.
Can some fighters grow, evolve, and adapt over time to stay relevant such that they warrant paying that sticker shock when purchased? Certainly…the F-16 was clearly that case in the last generation of fighters. During its 48-year lifetime (first flight in January 1974), it grew from being a lightweight, close-in dogfighting 9G jet with no beyond visual range capability into a true multi-role, lethal, capable and, in the case of the F-16 E/F, a monster. Essentially every mission set except ISR, or stealth-related missions can be flown by the F-16…. oh, also it can’t land on a boat.
What is another example of a fighter growing and adapting to changes over time? The CF-18 Hornet is an excellent example of a jet bought for the Canadian Cold War threat and NORAD commitments which had to then adapt to new weapons for Desert Storm, then again for combat in Operation Allied Force over Kosovo to yet again for Libya and then Syria. Bought at the beginning of its lifecycle, the Hornet grew and changed as the Canadian military roles and needs changed over time.
Can some fighter jets effectiveness stall so that they have to be dragged into the future, becoming less and less tactically relevant and less survivable in relatively short time period? Yes…the 3-nation consortium Tornado was just that kind of aircraft. It was the most expensive of all the competitors in Canada’s New Fighter Aircraft competition well over 40 years ago vs F-14, F-15, F-16, F/A-18, Mirage F-1 and the least capable. The single mission low level bomber was adapted to the air-to-air role, hardly a fighter and barely an interceptor, plus a Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) role and functioned almost entirely because of the incredibly talented WSOs / backseaters / navigators who managed and operated the systems. Having flown it for 4 years when I was a test pilot on Eurofighter, I can attest to its lack of adaptability for future growth.
In the case of F-35, the decision to invest comes at the beginning of its lifetime and not at the end of its life as would have been the case with Rafale or Eurofighter. Think of investing in the iPhone instead of Blackberry or a Nokia flip phone and ask yourself which is the smarter choice.
Is cost measured in $ spent to procure?
or $ spent to operate and maintain?
or $ measured in the numbers of aircraft it takes to complete a mission?
or $ measured in the lives lost in combat / accidents?
Cost to Procure
F-35 presently costs $78 M down from $120 M a number of years ago and down yet even more from when F-35 was a prototype. That’s less $ than every 4.5 Gen fighter on the market and those aircraft also require procuring the extra equipment needed to complete a mission including electro-optical targeting pods (Sniper or Lightning or equivalent), external weapons pylons, extra fuel tanks and maybe even electronic warfare systems.
Supply and demand matters just as the number of jets that are built matters. When you build more as in the case of F-35 (3000+), logically the price comes down. Except, the European jets don’t price that way. Their costs have increased over time in spite of building more jets. Eurofighter cost 120 M Euros back 20 years ago when I flew it. How much does it cost now? It costs even more than 120 M Euros today as the price never came down even after decades of development. That’s also a pretty good example of capitalism versus socialism.
Cost to Operate
Imagine going to a car dealer and letting yourself be convinced that you should pay more now (higher procurement cost) in hopes to save money over time (lower operating costs) but have less capability (lose pilots in combat). The Saab Gripen promised just that. The F-35 program, and Lockheed Martin have set the goal of $25,000 per flight hour based on the US Air Force model of what it costs to maintain a fighter. That USAF model includes a lot of personnel and facilities that don’t exist in single fighter air forces (like Norway or the Netherlands or Canada). However even with the differences, F-35 should be able to match that lower number and the program best do everything possible to dissect every number to trim the operating costs. Norwegian data already suggests that the cost to operate the F-35 is comparable to that of their F-16 fleet. Time will be the true judge but clearly getting the costs down matters.
Cost of Effectiveness
A fair comparison would be tasking 8 F-35s to manage what, in a non-5th Gen large scale force, would take 60+ specialized aircraft to complete a mission. A stealth formation would operate autonomously, fusing data amongst the 8-ship formation, seeing everything in the battlespace and potentially executing the mission without ever being detected and attacked while conceivably the enemy only knowing that the F-35s were there when the bombs dropped on their heads. These formations would enter enemy territory, avoid, suppress, or destroy enemy defenses as needed, attack the targets, neutralize the air-to-air threats, and egress all the while gathering ISR data.
Those legacy 60+ aircraft formations, where each specialized fighter would all be essential to the success of the entire attack package, would enter enemy territory being detected from the beginning and operate defensively from start to finish. Every aircrew would know that they were observed, detected, and tracked by the enemy through the entire period of ingress, attack, and egress from enemy territory. In a highly contested environment, the non-VLO aircraft would assume they would be attacked directly and may not have the capability on board to evade being shot down resulting in losses at some point in a conflict.
8 F-35s with everyone coming back home versus 60+ 4.5 Gen fighters where losses can be anticipated.
Ask yourself how many 4.5 fighters get shot down before you cannot regenerate missions because there aren’t enough jets left, cannot replace the pilots to fly again or when would the losses cripple the Air Force’s ability to conduct combat?
Is F-35 Worth It?
Is F-35 the best investment of Canadian, German, Belgian, or any nation’s defense funding? Having the best capability at the lowest procurement cost, and the longest lifetime ahead where the numbers give leverage to keep the capability upgraded and improved suggests that it is.
Is there a real measure of how good this 5th Gen fighter is and how it should be able to transform the armed forces where it has been integrated? Combat is the only true measure and none of us want to put it through that test. Already the F-35 has survived the harshest of development scrutiny and continues to evolve and show itself more capable as the years move on. Like it or not, when your son or daughter is being sent into combat, you will want them in an F-35. I would say that’s the smartest investment any nation will make in a long time.
Another thing I noticed about JSF was safety. We lived through the teen series where the F-16 fleet was getting grounded every month it seemed in the early days, due to all the problems with control surfaces, wire chaffing, F100-PW-200 flame-outs/unstarts, compressor stalls, blades launching, APU and EPU failures, CFIT, etc.
F-14 lost at least 69+ airframes with no less than 19 fatalities just in its first 10 years of service, not counting the crash on Flight #2 of prototype #1 or the later loss of the test pilots during its development.
F-15 had 54 airframe losses and 26 fatalities its first 10 years in the squadrons.
F-16 had 143 airframe losses and 71 fatalities in its first 10 years after it stood-up at Hill, not during YF-16 or FSD years.
F/A-18 had 97 airframe losses and 27 fatalities its first 10 years of service after going into the fleet, not counting the problems of those early birds from 1978-1982.
AV-8A/B had 100 losses, 20 fatalities its first 10 years.
A-10A had 59 losses and 26 fatalities its first 10 years. The gun was a major engineering challenge to get working as it would cause compressor stalls in an attack run towards the ground.
Overall, we lost 516 of these airframes, with 189 fatalities in the first 10 years of their respective service.
That’s the cost argument that just doesn’t get communicated, it seems. With JSF, we’ve lost:
2 F-35As to crashes, 1 in Japan (fatality), 1 at Eglin (IP bounced it off the runway). 1 early LRIP bird to ground fire.
3 F-35Bs have burned in, the first from a legitimate mechanical issue that grounded the fleet and was quickly remedied, the other 2 due to what appears to be human error (KC-130J tanker collision and the QE incident).
1 F-35C with the sort break turn behind the boat and subsequent ramp strike after 12 years of flight and the highest trap rate of any jet fighter in Naval Aviation history.
F-35A first flew Dec 2006. F-35B first flew Dec 2008. F-35C first flew Jun 2010.
790+ airframes have been delivered as of April 30, 2022 and 517,000 hours flown by that date. That’s more airframes than the F-14 or A-10, comparable to the F-15A/C fleet.
This is the safest multi-variant fighter series in history. Each variant in its own take off and landing profile exceeds legacy fighter safety statistics dramatically.
The F-16 worked through its faults in the 1980s and became the safest single engine fighter in USAF and allied nation service. In the past 10 years of its life, after those kinks have long been worked-out, we still lost 65 airframes with 38 fatalities. (JAN2012-JAN2022).
If I were to price out 516 4th Gen airframes at an average unit flyaway cost in 2022 USD at $85 million/airframe, (NOT including pods, EFTs, upgrades, JHMCS, pylons, rails, ejector racks, etc.), that would be $43.86 Billion.
The cost argument is a slam-dunk even before we start talking about entering a combat theater, where it makes just as much sense both for safety and combat effectiveness/survivability. As I pour over all the losses of aircraft in various conflicts, one of the leading causes is accidents before or after even entering threat parameters, traveling from one station to another, proximity to mishap aircraft on runways, etc.
JSF just sells itself in so many ways that even a politician can understand those numbers. Service life retainability of fighters from total loss mishaps is higher with JSF than legacy.
I am told that RCAF CF-18 pilots currently log no more than 120 hours flying time per year. This is beyond absurdity. How can they possibly be proficient enough in a CF-18 to be combat effective?
And how will they get proficient in a $25,000 per hour infinitely more sophisticated CF-35? If the answer is the usual virtual video game simulators, then that just does not cut it.
There is no replacement for time airborne.
The flight hour conversation is much larger than just how many hours flown per year. 120 is very little but the old notion of flying around the flag pole just to get hours like cross-country trips, IFR round robins and proficiency flights are a waste of time in 5th Gen. Pilots would be completely wasting the incredible resource of F-35. Simulators will be central to all training but no one can ever replace gaining airmanship with actual flying.
I’ll address CPFH and complexity:
Here are the real CPFH figures from the DoD Comptroller’s office, which is published every year. We can also contrast those with the reported CPFH from Norway for the A models.
US DoD 2022 Fixed Wing Hourly Rates:
F-35A – $13,185
F-35B – $13,307
F-35C – $12,498
AV-8B – $17,904
EA-18G – $13,445 (NOT including ALQ-99 Jammer Pods)
F-5F – $17,294
F-5N – $16,117
F-16A – $23,967 (NAWDC TOPGUN Aggressor Vipers for USN at Fallon)
F-16B – $22,708 (Same as above, 2-seat Viper. These are from a canceledPakistani contract.)
F/A-18C – $21,288
F/A-18D – $23,137
F/A-18E – $16,742
F/A-18F – $17,838
F-15C – $23,537
F-16C – $10,866 (This does NOT include costs for LITENING FLIR, HARM, or ECM Pods, which are all maintained by different shops in the USAF mx structure.)
F-15E – $18,799 (This does NOT include costs for LITENING FLIR, or LANTIRN NAV Pods.)
F-22A – $50,334
Royal Norwegian Air Force
F-35A – 110,000 Kroners or $11,250/hr
Sources: US DoD Comptroller 2022 Fixed Wing Hourly Rates
Norwegian Defense Minister
Norwegian Air Logistics Chief
Norwegian Air Chief
The numbers being reported to Congress include a weird addition of projected future costs, basing logistics, new airfields (Hill AFB’s runway was totally re-surfaced.), MWR facilities, new Squadron buildings (USAF is gifted in their ability to get all new infrastructure when they get new aircraft under the guise that they need all these essential luxuries.). This is enabled by the local State Congressmen who see billions flowing into their districts, meaning lots of jobs, economic impact for the local businesses, and more votes. These numbers will never be accounted for in Congress because most Congressmen know the game.
The higher the prices Congress sees on a program, the more excited most of them get if their district has anything to do with it. But you can see the real hourly CPFH rates if you know where to look.
Now let’s talk about complexity-
The basic mechanical systems for the DFLCS and physical architecture on JSF are actually less complicated than legacy systems. The component count and vulnerability to hydraulic failure systems is greater in all of the legacy designs.
For example, on an F-16, you have a dual redundant central hydraulic system, but if it fails, you can lose pressure to the distant actuators of the control surfaces. There is a mix between fluid supply and electrical wiring to those control surfaces.
On JSF/F-35s, you have light signal through fiber-optic lines replacing the old copper electrical wiring, with independent self-contained Electrohydrostatic Actuators (EHAs) for each control surface, which makes the aircraft mechanically and hydraulically LESS complex, far more reliable, with better performance and less maintenance required.
Another area where JSF is far less complex is with the AESA Radar vs legacy Mechanically-Steered Array Radars. Radars are one of the biggest contributors to mx hours. In the old jets like the Hornet and F-16 with APG-65 and APG-68, the antennae is physically moved in search patterns at a very rapid rate by a hydraulic steering gimbaling mechanisms, which are very prone to failure and low MTBF rates, with leaky fluid a constant problem for the avionics techs.
With F-35, the AESA doesn’t move, and doesn’t need moving parts because it has Electronically-Steered Arrays, where electrical energy is manipulated between the antennae elements to perform what is known as agile beam-steering.
Another area on legacy fighters that is very component-saturated is the cockpit itself. We’re talking about hundreds upon hundreds of fasteners, connectors, separate black boxes mounted behind all the panels, wiring harnesses galore, several deep-back displays, the HUD subsystem, power switch panels for various systems, and Federated display architecture. Maintaining the cockpit alone can be extremely tedious, especially as aircraft are upgraded with systems they were never designed to accommodate, like JHMCS (Helmet-Cueing System for legacy birds.)
In JSF, most of this simply vanishes because of the Panoramic Cockpit Display screens, no HUD, and automation integrated into all the legacy start-up and shut-down procedures that are no longer necessary with a fully-digital aircraft. Think cordless phone from the late 1980s replaced by a late model iPhone.
JSF is far less complex in many critical areas from a physical architecture standpoint. Where it does get complex to your point, is in pilot training for all the new mission sets that have never been possible in a legacy multirole fighter. We have never really trained fighter pilots to be Electronic Attackers, then swing into a mission like the F-117A (while their aircraft sucks up all the sensor data along the way more like a spy plane), then deliver PGMs on-target deep in a Missile-infested network, then swing into an Airborne Warning & Controller, then possibly execute an A2A DCA or OCA mission subset, then egress the area while swinging back into an Electronic Attacker.
The good news is that we have very high fidelity simulators that can support that type of training, while the pilots then go out and execute as many of those mission sets in the real world after planning and training for them for days in the SIM. The real challenge is that we don’t have live environments that can properly simulate modern IADS.
But the problems don’t exist with the JSF series themselves, just that their capabilities revolutionize an antiquated way of training. The media articles really miss the marks on all fronts in their click-bait reporting on the JSF program.