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.