A Few Defense Costs

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?

12 thoughts on “A Few Defense Costs”

  1. Tim says:

    Re F-35 vs F-16. That is a shame as the UK have just ordered 138 of them!

  2. alecia flores says:

    I’m not trying to imply this is the answer, but when I worked for an electronic firm, we tried to get the military to trade up to our newer, faster, and better computers. The new machines were ‘loaned’ to one group for testing, and they sabotaged the tests. Those who were in charge of the computers didn’t want to trade up – they liked their core memory, slower machines. Because of that test, they purchased a number of re-furbished old machines at an outrageous price (we had to buy some back from customers who were thrilled to ‘trade up’). Maintaining the older computers cost the military a bunch of money, and they were using decades old technology before they finally had to trade up. It didn’t cost them anywhere near billions, but they were out a couple of million or so.

    1. Daze says:

      You may find that the older machines were a lot more resilient against EMP – not necessarily a dumb choice.

  3. Tim says:

    @Alecia. When I worked on military systems, the same applied. New technology was considered vulnerable and in the 90s, there was a rush to offer better processors quickly. The risk of new (viewed as ‘unproven’) technology and some poor computer languages which were prone to memory leak (C and C++ spring to mind) made new technology (H/w and s/w) a thing to be avoided. From the military perspective, imagine your ship is under attack 100 miles from the coast and you get a blue screen!

    Things may have changed now.

  4. Miles says:

    The F-35 top speed is usually listed as mach 1.6 or 1.6+ with an absolute maximum of mach 1.8.

    1. The key word there is “listed.”

  5. Miles says:

    I don’t understand. What do you mean by the key word being “listed”?

    1. D Archerd says:

      Meaning the actual top speed of any military hardware is always highly classified, and the listed speed will be some number that everyone assumes is obvious.

      1. We know that the top speed of a now-obsolete F4E was Mach 2. To accept the fact that the newest U.S. fighter is twenty percent slower than a forty year old fighter is slightly less than believable, although the top recorded speed of any aircraft to date belongs to the SR71, a Mach 3 plus aircraft that was officially measured at 2,190 mph over 30 years ago.

        1. Miles says:

          What’s so hard to believe about a modern strike fighter flying slower than an antiquated interceptor/air superiority/fighter bomber? The F-117 conducted the strike mission at exclusively subsonic speeds. The F-35 is expected to spend the lion’s share of flight hours at subsonic speeds also.

          1. You’re absolutely right… and the poor F-35 pilots will end up paying for that lack of speed.

  6. Miles says:

    I get that weapons systems have both “public” and “classified” specifications. What I don’t get is where the F-35 has a widely-accepted top speed of mach 1.6 (we’ll ignore the skin delamination issues at supersonic speeds for now), and the F-22 has a widely-accepted top speed of mach 2.25 (redlined at mach 2 for skin delamination issues too) why claim otherwise? The F-4’s top speed was widely publicized at the time of its entry into service, and that “listed” top speed hasn’t changed in 55 years. Borrow an old copy of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft from your local library if you don’t believe me. You can even ILL them if your local library doesn’t have them.

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