$337 million for a F-35C: What to make of Wheeler’s F-35 cost quotes


Night flight

Calculating the cost of a modern military aircraft is very hard. With so many different ways to arrive at what the unit price actually is and so much opacity and misinformation surrounding the actual figures, observers could be forgiven for giving up. But one man with enough confidence and patience is Winslow Wheeler, a staff member at the Project On Government Oversight.

His article on the popular website ‘War is Boring’ caused a stir this week with the following statement:

—A single Air Force F-35A costs a whopping $148 million. One Marine Corps F-35B costs an unbelievable $251 million. A lone Navy F-35C costs a mind-boggling $337 million. Average the three models together, and a “generic” F-35 costs $178 million.—

Were these figures accurate and representative? DoD Buzz put the question to Kevin Brancato, a senior defense analyst at Bloomberg Government, who noted that they “appear to be correct, but emphasized that the vast majority of the differences between the unit cost of the variants in fiscal 2015 is due to spreading nonrecurring and support costs over fewer aircraft.”  Including non-recurring costs in a year where relatively few aircraft have been purchased will arrive at large numbers, but the point remains that these numbers are still correct. The same cannot be said of the optimistic figures quoted by the pro-F-35 lobby that factor in ‘best-possible’ sales numbers. It’s hard to recall the last fighter or bomber that was purchased in the kinds of quantities discussed in their early lives. This is especially true of stealth aircraft which are notoriously expensive to produce, and maintain; USAF originally envisioned a force of 750 F-22s and received 187. USAF wanted 132 B-2s and got 21. Who knows, maybe the F-35 will buck this trend and USAF will receive the 1,763 they currently want, but this seems very unlikely. The Navy who are less keen on the F-35 than the air force are also likely to trim their order for 260. For the USMC to buy and maintain a fleet of 340 F-35 B-models and 80 F-35 C-models would be an astonishing exercise in generous DoD funding. The result of the likely reductions in orders will be higher unit prices and it is entirely plausible that the best mid-life figures may not be a million miles from Wheeler’s rather shocking observations.


Picture credit: War is Boring

The F-35 is the worst current example of military procurement but it would be interesting to apply Wheeler’s rules to other programmes (it’s hard not think of Dasault’s Rafale with a total project cost exceeding €45.9 billion and only 132 aircraft produced). But the F-35 is such an extreme example, with so many far-reaching secondary considerations (the ‘middle of the end’ for any notion that Europe can decide which wars it wants to fight being one of them), that it is only right and fair to keep it in the crosshairs.

The only hope that can come from the F-35 programme is that maybe one day its failures will prompt reforms to the chronically flawed US military procurement process, a system that has cost many tax-payers (not just in the US) billions of dollars unnecessarily.

You can find out about the worst carrier aircraft here 

“Never fly the ‘A’ model of anything” : Expect amends to this article over the next few days. 

Aur 48 F-111B

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