Articles

How Much Does An F-35 Really Cost?


The F-35 (AKA "the Joint Strike Fighter" or "Lightening II") is not just the most expensive warplane ever, it's the most expensive weapons program ever. But to find out exactly how much a single F-35 costs, we analyzed the newest and most authoritative data.

Also Read: The AC-130 'Ultimate Battle Plane' Is Getting Even More Firepower >

Here's how much we're paying.

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.

It gets worse. These are just the production costs. Additional expenses for research, development, test and evaluation are not included. The dollars are 2015 dollars. This data was just released by the Senate Appropriations Committee in its report for the Pentagon's 2015 appropriations bill.

Except for the possibility that the F-35 Joint Program Office might complain that the F-35A number might be a little too low, these numbers are about as complete, accurate and authoritative as they can be.

Moreover, each of the other defense committees on Capitol Hill agree or-with one exception-think each model will be more expensive. The Pentagon's numbers for these unit costs-in every case-are higher.

The methodology for calculating these F-35 unit costs is straightforward. Both the president's budget and each of four congressional defense committees publish the amounts to be authorized or appropriated for each model of the F-35, including the number of aircraft to be bought.

The rest is simple arithmetic: Divide the total dollars for each model by the quantity.

There are just two things F-35 watchers need to be careful about.

First, it's necessary to add the funding from the previous year's appropriation act to the procurement money the government allocated for 2015. This is "advance procurement" for 2015 spending, and pays for "long lead" components that take longer to acquire.

Second, we have to add the cost of Navy and Air Force modifications.

For the F-35, these costs are for fixing mistakes already found in the testing process. With the aircraft still in its initial testing, the modification costs to existing aircraft are very low. But the 2015 amounts for modifications are surrogates for what the costs for this year's buy might be. If anything, this number can be an under-estimate.

The Senate Appropriations Committee sent its report to the printer on July 17, and that data is informed by the latest advice from the Pentagon, which is routinely consulted for the data the committee is working with. The Pentagon is also given an opportunity to appeal to change both data and recommendations.

Accordingly, of the four congressional defense committees, the Senate Appropriations Committee numbers are the most up to date. For the most part, these numbers are also the lowest.

The data from all four defense committees, the Pentagon's budget request, and the final 2014 appropriations-all for the F-35 program-are in the table at the end of this article. This data is the empirical, real-world costs to buy, but not to test or develop, an F-35 in 2015.

They should be understood to be the actual purchase price for 2015-what the Pentagon will have to pay to have an operative F-35.

It's very simple, and it's also not what program advocates want you to think.

In a briefing delivered to reporters on June 9, F-35 developer Lockheed still advertised the cost of airplanes sans engines. Highly respected Aviation Week reported on July 22 that taxpayers put up $98 million for each F-35A in 2013.

In reality, we actually paid $188 million.

Some of these numbers are for the airframe only. In other cases, you get a "flyaway" cost. But in fact, those airplanes are incapable of operative flight. They lack the specialized tools, simulators, logistics computers-and much, much more-to make the airplane useable. They even lack the fuel to fly away.

Here's another curious fact. The unit costs of the Marines' short-takeoff, vertical-landing B-model and the Navy's aircraft-carrier-capable C-model are growing.

The cost of an F-35B grew from $232 million in 2014 to a bulging $251 million by 2015. The cost of the Navy's F35C grew from $273 million in 2014 to a wallet-busting $337 million by 2015.

The quantity numbers for the F-35B have not changed, remaining at six per year. The number of F-35Cs to be produced has slipped from four to two, but surely learning processes on the F-35 line have not been going so far backward as to explain a 23 percent, $64 million per unit cost increase.

Something else is going on.

That something just might be in the F-35A line. Note the 15 percent decline in the F-35 unit price from 2014: from $174 million to $148 million. The units produced increase from 19 to 26, which Bogdan repeatedly explained will bring cost reductions due to "economy of scale."

However, is that what's really occurring in the F-35A line, while F-35B and F-35C costs are ballooning? Should not some of the benefit in F-35A production efficiency also show up on the F-35B and F-35C? Lockheed builds all three on the same assembly line in Fort Worth.

It could be that the F-35B and F-35C are bearing the overheard-or other costs-of the F-35A.

Why else would an F-35B with a stable production rate increase by $19 million per unit, and how else could the cost to build an F-35C-in production for six years-increase by $64 million per unit?

Even those who reject that someone might be cooking the books to make F-35A costs look as good as possible to Congress-and all-important foreign buyers-there should be a consensus that the program needs a comprehensive, fully independent audit.

Surely, an audit will help Congress and Pentagon leadership better understand why F-35B and F-35C prices are going up when they were supposed to be going down-and to ensure there is nothing untoward going on in any part of the program.

The defense world is full of price scams, each of them engineered to come up with the right answer for whoever is doing the talking.

Next time an advocate tells you what the current unit cost is for a program, ask: "What is Congress appropriating for them this year?" And, "How many are we buying?" Then get out your calculator. The result might surprise you.

NOW: Dispatches of War: Shuras Don't Mean Peace >

OR: 8 Presidents Who Actually Saw Combat In A Big Way >

GEAR & TECH

The Marines' newly-armed Osprey tests guns, rockets, and missiles

The Marine Corps is now arming its Osprey tiltrotor aircraft with a range of weapons to enable its assault support and escort missions in increasingly high-threat combat environments.

Rockets, guns, and missiles are among the weapons now under consideration, as the Corps examines requirements for an "all-quadrant" weapons application versus other possible configurations such as purely "forward firing" weapons.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less

It's been 10 years since the Air Force retired the Nighthawk

It's been 10 years since the United States Air Force retired the F-117 Nighthawk (an aircraft so secret, Nevada folklore labeled it a UFO).

"The Nighthawk pilots were known by the call sign 'Bandit,' each earning their number with their first solo flight. Some of the maintainers were also given a call sign," said Wayne Paddock, a former F-117 maintainer currently stationed at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

Keep reading... Show less
Entertainment

4 things you didn't know about the epic film 'Apocalypse Now'

In 1979, film-making legend Francis Ford Coppola released one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time, Apocalypse Now. The story follows Capt. Willard (as played by Martin Sheen), a man tasked with the dangerous mission of traveling deep into the jungles of Cambodia to assassinate a rogue colonel who military intelligence believes has gone insane.

Immediately, the film captivated audiences around the globe. In fact, you can still find screenings of this film in movie theaters throughout the country today. It's a masterclass in stunning scenery and epic metaphor.

Keep reading... Show less
Humor

7 types of people you meet in a deployed 'tent city'

You'll never get a more true-to-life snapshot of the other branches than the one you get when you begin your deployment. Everyone from every branch (and occasionally every allied nation) is crammed in together in a transient barracks — also known as a "tent city."

It doesn't matter what type of unit you're in, everyone gets put in the same tents and the results are hilarious. Here's who you'll meet in these temporary towns.

Keep reading... Show less

A Navy warship just rescued a sinking luxury yacht

The Harpers Ferry-class amphibious dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52) assisted a distressed vessel in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California April 20, 2018.

The civilian vessel, Mahana, reported it was taking on water at approximately 10:33a.m.

Pearl Harbor, approximately nine nautical miles away from the vessel at the time, coordinated with Coast Guard Sector San Diego and Mission Bay lifeguards during the rescue.

Keep reading... Show less
NEWS

NASA just discovered what Uranus smells like

Even after decades of observations and a visit by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft, Uranus held on to one critical secret — the composition of its clouds. Now, one of the key components of the planet's clouds has finally been verified.

A global research team that includes Glenn Orton of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has spectroscopically dissected the infrared light from Uranus captured by the 26.25-foot (8-meter) Gemini North telescope on Hawaii's Mauna Kea. They found hydrogen sulfide, the odiferous gas that most people avoid, in Uranus' cloud tops. The long-sought evidence was published in the April 23, 2018, issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

This new guided-missile frigate packs a lot of punch

USS Freedom (LCS-1), the lead of the Freedom-class of littoral combat ships, brought some much-needed positive attention to the LCS in 2010 when it carried out a deployment in Southern Command's area of operations. In just seven weeks, it made four drug busts while accomplishing a host of other missions.

It's no secret that the development and deployment of the Littoral Combat Ship has been rife with problems. This big success was exactly what the class needed to secure an export order. Well, to be more specific, a modified version of the Freedom has found an international buyer.

Keep reading... Show less