Many years ago, I was a Navy helicopter search and rescue pilot, and, consequently, I do tend to follow aircraft developments… and their costs. The first helicopter I flew as a full-fledged Naval Aviator was a Sikorsky UH-34, the last large piston-driven helicopter, and, as I recall, each cost somewhere less than a million dollars. Today’s Navy uses Sikorsky Seahawks [SH-60R/S] for carrier search and rescue, and they come with a price tag in excess of $30 million each.
The other day I was reading a report on the Air Force’s proposed new long range bomber. Each one is projected to cost something like $564 million, and the total program cost of the one hundred planned high tech stealth bombers is expected to exceed $80 billion. This may seem expensive, but the most expensive bomber procurement ever was that of the B-2. Only 21 B-2s were built, and the total program cost for each amounted to $2 billion per bomber.
The newest U.S. advanced fighter plane is the F-35, rated with a top speed of Mach 2.25, each one of which will cost a minimum of $163 million. Unhappily, the program appears to have run into a number of problems, including a flight test in which an F-16 apparently bested an F-35 in a trial dog-fight, which created some consternation, given that the F-16 is a far older aircraft with a forty year old design, giving rise to concerns that the F-35 might not live up to its billing.
Prior to that, the unit cost for an F-22, a stealth air superiority fighter, was $155 million each in 2009. By comparison, in 1965 a Mach 2 capable F-4E Phantom jet fighter cost $2.4 million [$18 million in today’s dollars].
So, we now have a fighter aircraft that is only ten percent faster that the top-rated fighter of fifty years ago, but which costs nine times as much. Why the difference? A good aircraft designer could give a better answer, but some of the most obvious reasons for cost increases are the need for stealth technology and design and the incredible advancement in avionics and missile technology.
As an old-line pilot, though, I have to wonder. Even years and years ago, the F-14 had an incredible “stand-off “ capability and was theoretically able to destroy aircraft beyond the pilot’s range of vision… and so far as I know that capability was seldom if ever used, simply because there was no way to reliably determine whose aircraft the F-14 could destroy. Now we have even greater stand-off capability at far higher costs… but do we dare to use it?