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Come Fly the Expensive Skies

2 May 2012

7:04 PM

2 May 2012

7:04 PM

Meanwhile, in other defence news Winslow Wheeler says it is time for the cousins to give up on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It is, as everyone knows, a troubled plane. Quite expensive too:

The F-35 will actually cost multiples of the $395.7 billion cited above. That is the current estimate only to acquire it, not the full life-cycle cost to operate it. The current appraisal for operations and support is $1.1 trillion — making for a grand total of $1.5 trillion, or more than the annual GDP of Spain. And that estimate is wildly optimistic: It assumes the F-35 will only be 42 percent more expensive to operate than an F-16, but the F-35 is much more complex. The only other "fifth generation" aircraft, the F-22 from the same manufacturer, is in some respects less complex than the F-35, but in 2010, it cost 300 percent more to operate per hour than the F-16. To be very conservative, expect the F-35 to be twice the operating and support cost of the F-16.

Already unaffordable, the F-35’s price is headed in one direction — due north.

The F-35 isn’t only expensive — it’s way behind schedule. The first plan was to have an initial batch of F-35s available for combat in 2010. Then first deployment was to be 2012. More recently, the military services have said the deployment date is "to be determined." A new target date of 2019 has been informally suggested in testimony — almost 10 years late.

At the time, the JSF (as it was known then) seemed a good idea: it was to be a multi-purpose aircraft that would be much cheaper than the F-22 but still good enough to outclass any fighter any rival could conceivably put into the sky. Oh, and there would be three versions of it so that the Marines, Navy and US Air Force could each play with variations of the same plane. This too was supposed to keep costs down. So, for a while anyway, was the plan to have rival engine suppliers (good news for Rolls Royce and something the UK government lobbied to keep) just in case something went wrong with the first choice plan.

Years later, the problems with a more-or-less-one-size-fits-all approach have become apparent. Complexity is becoming almost as much of a problem as it is also an advantage in terms of helping achieve air-superiority. Moreover, additional investment produces proprotionally diminishing returns. The quest for the perfect weapon paradoxically makes it harder to produce any useful weapon on time or (laughable thought) on budget.

That, of course, reflects a humanitarian shift in our approach to battlefield deaths. We seek, for good reasons, to ensure our troops are as well protected as possible and casualties minimised. This is sensible: lives are precious and in the volunteer-era each soldier is a considerable investment. But there are costs too: the perfect can become the enemy of the just-about-good-enough. Everyone wants the "best" but sometimes the "best available" is the best you can do and better, for that matter, than searching for the ideal. (There’s an argument for cheap, cheerful, disposable and easily replacable too.)

From a British perspective, the JSF programme must once have seemed a splendid notion. In addition to its own merits, purchasing the plane would also buttress the case for new carriers for the Royal Navy. Happy times. But as the planes become more expensive so fewer of them can be purchased which means, subject as they must be to the usual problems of servicing and maintaining flying-qualifications, that very, very few of them will be available at any given time for operations. Capability Shrink is a real concern.

Granted, the F-35’s cost is supposed to be spread over half a century and so, like other big-ticket defence purchases (hello Trident!) is not quite as eye-wateringly expensive as sometimes supposed. Nevertheless, the UK still has – in theory at any rate – an opportunity to reconsider its investment in the programme. Our sunk costs are not the same as those the cousins must pay.

The Americans won’t abandon the F-35 though the services won’t get as many planes as once they hoped. The costs are staggering and yet the question Mr Wheeler does not ask (though I am sure he could answer it) is how expensive it would be to develope separate Navy and Air Force planes at this point and how he would plan for them over the next half century. If, of course, many planes will be needed at all…

As so often in these matters, there is the nagging thought that obsolescence might be just around the corner.

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