Lockheed Martin consultant Loren Thompson is promoting a rather misleading meme about the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter in a recent blog post.
The idea that an F-35 costs about as much of one of today’s lower-priced fighters, and that it will cost less than many others, was important in paving the way for the truncation of the F-22 program in 2009. It’s important today, as the USAF starts to think about spending serious money on F-16 upgrades, a project that implies lower production rates for the F-35 through the 2020s. It’s important to the international partners, many of whom have assured their voters that they can afford to replace their F-16s and F/A-18s with F-35s.
When you add up all the expenses, though, the cost of manufacturing each F-35A (the Air Force variant) five years from now looks likely to be identical to what manufacturing the latest version of a single-engine F-16 costs today.
It’s also conveniently incontrovertible by direct means because the price of an F-16 has not been published for a long time. Export sales have been covered by Defense Security & Cooperation Agency notifications, which are usually package deals including more than the basic aircraft, and moreover are set at the maximum estimated value of the deal.
However, it can still be demonstrated that the F-16 comparison holds no water.
Assuming that the production ramp-up in the revised program unfolds as planned, the cost to build each Air Force variant of the plane should fall to $64 million in today's dollars in the tenth production lot, funded in fiscal 2016 and delivered in fiscal 2018. As with the legacy fighters in the force today, that does not include the engine, which the government procures under a separate contract.The rock-bottom unit recurring flyaway cost, in the most recent authoritative source on F-35 costs, the 2011 Selected Acquisition Report, is $84.5 million for the FY2016 buy, for an F-35A in base-year 2012 dollars. Thompson’s number is $9 million lower than the no-engine rollaway price for that year.
And, while there is no current F-16 data in US budget documents, the F/A-18E/F is a similar design delivered under Pentagon rules, under similar labor rates and using the same supplier base. The URF for the 2012 buy is $55.6 million, engines included. (p. 117) The F-16 is two-thirds the size of the Super Hornet in terms of operating empty weight and installed thrust. While we don’t buy fighters by the pound, it’s still hard to see the price of the smaller and less complex fighter being far north of $45 million, which far from being equal to the F-35 is close to half the cost.
And before anyone says, “but… internal electro-optical targeting system”, I can buy a lot of targeting pods for $40 million.
Now, this is not to say that the mature JSF won’t be good enough to justify its price, once all the features have been tested. However, it’s unwise for the program’s supporters – at this point – to continue to maintain that the early goal of an F-16-like price tag is in sight. Not while one of the largest customer governments is getting smacked around like a redhaired stepchild (and rightly so) by its national media and opposition for understating the JSF’s cost.
As a certain defense consultant puts it:
Overseas customers are unlikely to buy a fighter costing significantly more than the latest version of fighters they are operating today.Indeed.