Pricey Combat Planes and even Pricier Operational Costs

Air flight costs
This Chart Shows The Staggering Hourly Cost Of Operating US Military Aircraft –

 by Jamal Hussain 17 February 2020

Acquisition of airpower is an expensive proposition. The exponential rise in the cost of successive generations of modern combat planes, which represent the queen in the air warfare chessboard, is a classic example. The piston engine/propeller driven powered predecessors of modern fighter-strike aerial platforms that were ubiquitous during the two Great Wars of the 20th century were relatively cheap to build, acquire and operate. The belligerents involved in both the conflicts were able to field combat planes in thousands against one another and even afford to lose hundreds in attrition every month while remaining operationally viable. The loss of combat crew for them was a far greater concern than hull losses.

This article will examine the meteoric rise in the price of successive combat planes manufactured by the three advanced western nations, the USA, Britain and France since WW II. For the purpose of this study, the manned combat platforms under consideration are single/dual-seat fighter/strike multi-role jet aircraft that form the backbone of air forces rather than the full spectrum of aerial platforms.

Norman Augustine, the US industrialist’s famous law relating to defence acquisition had predicted that the cost of tactical aircraft increases at a very predictable rate – a factor of ten every decade. (Trevor Taylor, Routledge Handbook of Air Power, 2018). If this trend continues, he prophesied, in the year 2054, the entire US defence budget of 2015 would be able to buy just one tactical aircraft.

A study of the historical data of price escalation of successive tactical aircraft of US, British and French origin should verify the accuracy of Augustine’s prediction. USA, France and Britain were selected for the study as these three, plus USSR/Russia are or have been in the forefront in the production of modern tactical combat jets. Both the USA and Russia are the two top nations in this field, but various factors have made accurate price calculation of the Russian fighter fleet difficult; hence price escalation of subsequent Russian combat jets have not been included in the study.

The US Model

F-86 Sabre jets considered the top of the line US air superiority/strike platforms in the early 1950s had proven its worth against its nemesis the Russian Mig-15s in the Korean conflict. The unit coast of F-86F and E models was around $ 220,000, which translates roughly to about $ 1.5 million in 2012 dollars. The F-16 Falcon considered the logical heirs to the lightweight category of the Sabre class were procured for $ 18 million in the late 1970s. The F-15 Strike Eagles, a twin-seat heavier class strike platforms came at a hefty cost of $ 33 million per unit in late 1998. The cost of F-22, which has now replaced the F-15 as the top of the line fighter /strike platforms of the USAF has burgeoned to around $ 339 per aircraft by the end of the production line in 2012.

The F-16 Falcons succeeded the F-86s a little over two and three-quarters decades later and Augustine’s forecast of the price rise by a factor of four every decade suggested the F-16s unit price should have escalated by a factor of 12 to about $ 18 million. Using the same matrix, the F-15s in 1998 should have escalated by a factor of 20, i.e. to $ 30 million. Augustine’s forecast has proven fairly accurate in these two cases. The F-22 Raptors four decades after the F-16s should have been priced at 16 times 18, that is, $ 288 million each. The $ 339 million flyaway cost of a Raptor is even higher than the Augustine prediction.

The British Model

The British Hawker Hunters, their top of the line air superiority/strike platform in the 1950s were priced at £ 4.29 million (in 2006 value) whereas its logical successor the Tornado in 1979 cost £ 25.59 million, an escalation by a factor of six – Augustine had also predicted an increment by a factor of 8, about £34.3 million. The successor to the Tornado the Typhoon came into production two and a half decades later and was priced at £ 66.64 million per unit – 2.6 times the cost of the Tornado—Augustine had predicted a price rise by a factor of 10. Perhaps the performance enhancements from Hunter to Tornado and Typhoon were not as much as from Sabres to F-16s and F-22s, or perhaps the British were not as profligate in their development and production cycles.

The French Model

The French Mirage considered their numero uno jet fighter/strike platform in the 1950s cost $ 3 million in 1971.  Mirage 2000s, the natural successors to the Mirage III were sold to UAE at $ 33 million per unit in 1998 – at ten times the price of Mirage IIIs. Augustine chart had predicted a similar price rise of about 10-12 times in the three decades timeframe. Rafales are currently the top of the line French fighter/strike platforms and they were offered at $ 86 million per aircraft in 2005, about 2.6 times the cost of Mirage 2000s. Augustine had predicted a similar increment.   

The Augustine chart of price escalation has proven reasonably reliable for the US and French-built fighter/strike platforms. The British platforms price hikes have not been as astronomical.

Why the Steep Rise

Because the successive models of combat planes are far more capable in almost every sphere than the ones they replace, is a logical response. Trevor Taylor, in his article ‘cost of combat power’, studied the price hike and performance enhancement metrics of the British Hunter and Typhoon. He has concluded the Typhoon weighed 1.7 times more, was 2.2 times faster and the range was 1.6 times greater than the Hunter, for a total of 6.0. Yet, the Typhoon cost fifteen times more than the Hunter.

Aircraft performance factors alone, however, should not be the sole basis for the cost comparison of the new generation of combat planes with their predecessors. Modern combat platforms face a far more formidable and sophisticated array of anti-aircraft measures that they need to defeat if they are to remain viable. High, medium and low altitude SAMs, radar-controlled AAA batteries, highly sophisticated short-range heat-seeking and radar-guided BVR AAMs are the hostile Air Defence Ground Environment (ADGE) which the strike platforms of the 1950s did not face. In addition, their survivability and effectiveness would be contingent on negating the threat posed by the adversary’s air superiority fighters. Besides speed, agility, height, better firepower to defeat the threat, advanced avionics in the shape of more capable airborne intercept radars and advanced electronic countermeasures (ECM) and electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) have become essential, substantially adding to the cost.  Other aspects are also responsible for the almost scandalous pricing of the latest generation combat aircraft.

A handful of western nations and Russia currently hold a monopoly on the cutting edge technology required to produce fifth-generation combat planes. The USA is on the forefront along with Russia, France and Sweden. Britain, after the Tornado, has practically abandoned the policy of indigenously developing new combat planes and instead is a part of the European consortium for the projects. Typhoon, also termed as the Euro fighter is their equivalent of the American F-22, French Rafale and the Russian SU-35. China is still behind USA, Europe and Russia in the cutting edge aviation technology but it is fast closing the gap, and many predict in another decade it would overtake the western European nations in this field.

The monopolies of a handful of nations in the manufacture of combat planes allow them to dictate the price of their end product to the rest of the world. All factors considered the profit margin in the sale of combat planes is huge, giving much leeway to the manufacturers in offering handsome bribes/grafts to the decision makers, especially in the developing world. Under the table, money is officially illegal for the sale of military hardware in almost all western states, but a vast majority of defence deals particularly in Asia, Africa and South America are tainted with this malaise, and the breach is often overlooked by the seller states. As a result, many of the defence accords in the sale of combat planes are approved at an insanely high, almost scandalous price.           

Maintenance and Operational Costs of Modern Combat Jets

If the acquisition of modern combat planes makes a heavy dent on the national exchequer, their maintenance and operational costs impose a similarly heavy burden. Trevor Taylor maintains the costs of in-service support of combat aircraft can significantly exceed the original purchase price. According to the GAO report of 2016, the official estimate of F-35 development and creation of full fleet was $400 billion while another $600 billion would be required to support the aircraft during its lifespan.

Combat planes are designed for high performance even at the cost of reliability and maintainability, similar to the formula one racing cars. The complexity of navigation, engine control, surveillance, communication, fire control, weapons release and a myriad of other facilities are essential to fight and survive in the current ADGE. In addition, combat jets are operated at their optimum performance level even during peacetime training missions. Subsequently, the mean time between failures (MTBF) of their systems is significantly higher than their civilian counterpart, thus adding to the maintenance and operational costs.

Estimation and calculation of whole-life and annual ownership costs of combat jets are very complex and can differ a great deal depending on the variables factored in the calculations. Calculation of flight costs per hour of the British Tornado and Typhoon is an example. The British Parliament was informed that the standard marginal flying hour cost for a Tornado was £ 3875, including the price of fuel. However, if forward and depth servicing, crew costs, capital charge and depreciation are included, the figure rises to £ 45,000. Using a similar matrix, the Typhoon per hour cost came to £ 90,000.

The overall cost and per hour cost of combat jets will also vary according to the total flying conducted by the type during their service lifespan. The more hours are flown, the higher will be the total cost, but the flight cost per hour will be lower. In other words, reducing flying hours per year will reduce the overall cost but increase the cost per flight hour. The most expensive option according to a statement by a UK Minister in 2012, may be to own something but not fly it much.

The flight costs per hour of different categories of US combat jets as released by the DOD’s Comptroller are as under:

A-10C              $ 5,944

F-18 F              $ 10,507

F-15C               $ 23,124

F-22                 $ 34,971

F-35A               $ 28,455

The figures above illustrate how costs reflect the age and relative aircraft simplicity (Trevor Taylor).

           Using different sets of data, the figures issued by the US Air Force about the flight cost per hour of F-22 and F-35 are $ 58,059 and $ 67,550 respectively, and unlike the numbers quoted by the DOD Comptroller, the F-35As are more expensive to operate. This dichotomy perhaps is a reflection of the continued support provided to the F-35 program by the DOD and the USAF preference for the F-22s and its lack of enthusiasm for the F-35s. The headline of Loren Thomson’s article on Forbes on July 19, 2018 reads, ‘How the Air Force Could Become the Biggest Threat to the F-35 Fighter’s Success’.           

The high costs have led to a reduction of fleet sizes in most western nations. Figures from the Military Balance reports of 1990-91 and 2017 indicate the number of fighter/fighter ground attack platforms in Germany reduced by 62.7%, France 60.538%, UK 51.9% and Italy 47.5% (Trevor Taylor, Cost of Combat AirPower). Cost alone is just one of the factors for the steep decline in numbers. Independent nuclear deterrence (France, UK) and US nuclear umbrella (Germany, Italy) have reduced the likelihood of a WW II type conflict in Europe. Besides, the new generation of combat planes provide enhanced capability by a factor of two or more compared to the ones these have replaced.

            The USA, with global ambitions, continues to invest an enormous amount on its combat fleet. USAF with a budget of $ 161 billion dwarfs the entire defence budgets of almost all other nation states. The fighter combat fleet of USAF that peaked at about 13,000 in 1956 had reduced to less than 5000 by 2008 (Arsenal of Air Power, Col. James C. Ruehrmund Jr. USAF) and the figure in 2018 is probably down to 3,680. In addition to the USAF combat inventory, the US Naval Aviation fields another 3027 combat planes, and similarly, the US Army Aviation boasts an array of fixed and rotary-wing aerial platforms.

            Similar details about the number of combat planes in PRC and Russia are not being quoted because of inaccessibility of accurate, verifiable data.

            In a number of air forces of the developing world, the conventional threat dimension is very real, and most continue to rely on numbers to counter the adversary. Their combat plane inventory has not altered much in the past two decades because of their continued reliance on older generation fighters, many of which have been declared obsolete in the advanced states. In almost most of these nations, the annual accident rates and combat crew fatalities exceed the developed world’s air forces by a substantive margin. 

The Way Forward

            Many aviation experts opine the F-22s, F-35s, Rafales and Typhoons are the final generation of manned fighters in the western world, while not ruling out successors to the stealth class Lockheed F-117 and Northrop Grumman B-2 bombers. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) of the Reaper class are gradually replacing manned fighters. Autonomous armed drones, also referred to as Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWs) that are free from ground control are already a reality and despite the current debate and opposition on the legal and moral aspects to their deployment, history suggests they will be operational sooner rather than later.

            For the protection of their airspace, governments are looking for alternative and less expensive solutions than the costly advanced combat jets. Improved ground-based air defence system is one option. However, for the provision of air support to the land and naval forces, combat jets, manned or unmanned or in the shape of cruise missiles are the only viable options. For a majority of the advanced states, the principal security threat arises from terror raids by non-state actors, many that have their sanctuaries in under-developed countries in Africa and Asia and should the need arise, an aerial led military campaign against them is a part of their contingency plan. The USA is currently embroiled against the Taliban in Afghanistan who have practically zero offensive aerial assets. Pakistan likewise is engaged in counterinsurgency operations against an adversary where the former enjoys total control of the air by default. Use of advanced jets of the F-16 class against a foe where the very potent air combat capability is not required is an expensive option; cheaper solutions are being explored.

The USA is interested in acquiring lower cost platforms for operations in an environment where ground-based defences are modest, and there is little aerial threat.  The A-10s are ideally suited for COIN operations and cost half or even one-third per flight hour compared to the advanced jets. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for the A-10s by the USAF, these will continue to be in service for the foreseeable future. Textron in the meanwhile has attracted considerable attention to its private venture Scorpion combat jet project specifically designed for COIN operations, to be priced at $ 20 million per piece. The USA is reported to have purchased the Brazilian propeller-driven strike aircraft Tucano that specialises in COIN operations and has equipped the Afghan Air Force for operations against the Taliban. The saving in fuel cost alone—as compared to jets propeller-driven platforms are far more fuel-efficient—would massively reduce the quantity of fuel to be transported to the operational sites through dangerous territory where combatants have been killed during the transportation process (Bier 2017). Lockheed AC-130 gunships are another option that has proven very successful and cost-effective when employed in the counterinsurgency role.   

The absence of the human element in Uninhabited Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) that are already on the drawing board and someday could well replace the manned combat planes give the designers and developers a lot of freedom in the enhancement of platform performance; it should also result in substantial cost savings. Would it lead to lower prices of the end products? Trevor Taylor predicts initially it would, but subsequently their price escalation would mirror those of the manned jets.

Options for Pakistan

The high cost of latest generation combat jets poses a severe dilemma for Pakistan, which confronts a very real conventional threat on its eastern front (India) while simultaneously waging a subconventional war against non-state actors who are actively supported by both Afghanistan and India. For the time being the fleet of upgraded F-16s and the JF-17s can counter any conventional military threat in the form of a major or minor Indian offensive but in case the Indian purchase of the Rafale jets or other fifth generation of advanced jets from the USA materialises, the air balance would swing in India’s favour. Matching the Indian air threat through similar acquisition would be difficult for Pakistan in the prevailing economic and political environment.

To meet any such eventuality, therefore, it would have to rely more heavily on its full spectrum nuclear deterrence option while coordinating with China in an outright purchase or joint production of the next generation of fighters. And to reduce the cost of the ongoing COIN operations, procurement of A-10 class platforms or co-production of a similar class plane is strongly recommended.

The aircraft to be co-produced should feature a subsonic design with straight, broad, large and preferably mid or high mounted wings that can accommodate a variety of weapons load and provide good slow-speed handling characteristics. A propeller-driven power plant or turbo-fan engine(s) with high mounted intakes and rugged landing gears would permit operations from relatively small semi-prepared surfaces. It should have the capacity of carrying plenty of fuel to provide it long endurance and loiter time over the target and be capable of carrying multiple loads of precision-guided bombs/missiles with small warheads, much like the US Hellfire missiles. And finally, subject to cost, should be equipped with sensors and gadgets that would provide full night operations capability—have I just described an A-10 clone?

The Air Defence Ground Environment (ADGE) of both India and Pakistan has become sophisticated enough to prevent undetected incursions by either party. Standoff PGMs that can be released from well inside own territory is one option the PAF has and would do well to build upon. Besides the standoff weapons, cruise missiles of the US Tomahawk class will provide the service with a more cost-effective transnational strike options than the very expensive manned aerial platforms. Pakistan is alleged to have developed cruise missiles that can be fired from the submarines. Further efforts to enhance their accuracy and effectiveness to or even beyond the current Tomahawks with the Chinese cooperation if necessary, should provide the service with an affordable and effective strike option in the prevalent dense ADGE. 

In the meanwhile, efforts to produce armed drones and continuous enhancement of indigenous capability in the fields of electronics and avionics must be accorded the highest priority.

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Jamal Hussain is a retired Air Commodore with the Pakistan Air Force. He is a defence expert, with over 30 years’ experience and expertise on air power history, strategy and employment concepts. Has been writing, teaching and lecturing on defence related subjects, especially about nuclear dynamics and all aspects of air power mainly in the context of Pakistan and South Asia. One of the co-authors of ‘Routledge Handbook of Air Power’ published by Routledge Publishers Oxon and New York in 2018. Co-authored the book Tribes of Pakistan published by Cambridge Scholar Publishing. Appears regularly in TV talk shows, national and international seminars as a defence and air power expert. Has contributed articles on defence related issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh), Global Affairs journal Islamabad, Global Age magazine Islamabad and Dawn, the News, Daily Times and the Nation English Dailies from Pakistan. Articles published in the CTX journal Monterey, California.