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Following the Numbers on Airpower

December 1, 2009

If you look to history to find answers for today’s concerns, you will come to some eye-opening conclusions. For instance, Frank Chadwick at Great History details the amazing Post-Vietnam transformation of the US Air Force which gave us war-winning platforms like the F-15, F-16, and the A-10 warplanes. When he gets to the part where the stealth bombers like the B-2 Spirit and the F-117 Nighthawk join the inventory, he notices something happening, such as the dramatic decline in numbers purchased. Then he brings us to today:

We have new generations of aircraft which are so expensive we cannot procure enough to even come close to replacing existing aircraft as they wear out. The B-2 Spirit bomber has a per-unit all-up procurement cost of over two billion dollars.

Two billion dollars per bomber!

As a result, aircraft buys are tiny – and not because we are starving the military. Our defense budget is larger than that of every other country on the planet combined, and we still can only afford a total of twenty B-2 Spirits. We have been buying a trickle of F-22 Raptors each year, and only managing that – as its cost escalated through the stratosphere – by robbing the procurement funds for the F-35 Lightning II.

The decision this year to shut down F-22 Raptor production and re-channel the available funds into F-35 Lightning II production shows an emerging glimmer of sanity. Unit costs on the Raptor have ended up at over 300 million dollars per aircraft, although if we cranked up the assembly lines and really started grinding them out we could get that down to about 150 million per aircraft. (Oh boy!)…

In 2007 we had to temporarily ground 700 older F-15 Eagles pending upgrades. We are currently in the unbelievable – and to the best of my knowledge unprecedented – position of having an air force which has an average aircraft age older than the average age of the warships currently in service with the US Navy!

Frank has more confidence in the Lightning II than yours truly, which I think overall might be getting us deeper in the hole, especially as the deployment time is slipping further away. We needed this plane about a decade ago, but progress waits for no one, and I am not sure but if the new UCAVs already in service might have displaced the need for a $60-$100  million manned jet fighter. About the best thing we can say concerning JSF, it is not a 20 year old airframe–except in concept.

The new warplanes are becoming harder to build while the drones are getting better and staying affordable. Plus you can buy fewer of them, without putting a pilot at risk or paying for the latter’s years of college and flying experience. Just as it did after Vietnam, technology saves the day! Interesting times…

15 Comments leave one →
  1. B.Smitty permalink
    December 3, 2009 12:50 pm


    Are you proposing flying AT-6s off of LHA/Ds?

  2. Tarl permalink
    December 3, 2009 2:42 am

    We didn’t stop building the B-2 because they were so expensive.

    They were so expensive because we stopped building them.

  3. elgatoso permalink
    December 2, 2009 3:36 pm

    HUdson,You said ‘Their basic design, however, is a good one–based on a German piston driven plane near the end of the war. Allied pilots flew a couple of them, and they walked away from the Mustang ‘care to give some more information?.I am curious about WW2 german tech.

  4. Chuck Hill permalink
    December 2, 2009 1:43 pm

    The T-6 (Pilatus PV-9) is being looked at as a potential COIN Aircraft. It is needed to escort MV-22s.

  5. Jed permalink
    December 2, 2009 12:37 pm

    I included the Stavatti Machette links as a bit of ‘devils advocate’ but if you believe thier blurb it is a highly developed design that they do intend to build – of course whether that happens or not is a different matter ! Nice concept though :-)

  6. B.Smitty permalink
    December 2, 2009 11:46 am

    Oops, should have read “Hear hear”.

  7. B.Smitty permalink
    December 2, 2009 11:33 am

    Joe said,”But intellectual honesty should demand that numbers be presented fairly and facts dealt with honestly…something that doesn’t always happen.

    Here here Joe! I get tired of constantly fighting against the rhetorical misuse of program cost vs marginal cost to produce.

  8. Hudson permalink
    December 2, 2009 9:45 am

    Defiant, that’s what I thought. “Heavy Industry” usually means steel making, ship building, and the like. Their basic design, however, is a good one–based on a German piston driven plane near the end of the war. Allied pilots flew a couple of them, and they walked away from the Mustang.

  9. Defiant permalink
    December 2, 2009 7:38 am

    they are only doing cgi stuff, nothing more.

  10. Hudson permalink
    December 2, 2009 1:34 am

    Does anyone know if Stavatti Heavy Industry (Jed above) is for real? Has it built a working prototype of anything, or is it just a slick, highly detailed website?

  11. Joe permalink
    December 2, 2009 12:52 am


    Mr. Chadwick engages in something that I get tired of. Yes, he quite accurately states that when you take into account ALL of the costs of the B-2 program, and divide by the total # of planes produced, you end up with $2.2 billion per bomber (he just says over $2B).

    However, the marginal cost of production gets short shrift when it comes to reporting accuracy. Northrop, in 1995, had offered to produce an additional 20 planes for an estimated $570M per copy.

    Cheap? Hardly. A half a billion bucks 14 yrs ago per airframe was still a huge amount of money just as it will be 14 years hence. But intellectual honesty should demand that numbers be presented fairly and facts dealt with honestly…something that doesn’t always happen.

  12. Jed permalink
    December 1, 2009 9:31 pm

    Perhaps DoD should invest in Stavatti Heavy Industry and buy some SM47 Super Machetter single engined, forward swept wing fighters for 30 million USD each ???

    Thats two for less than the price of the Block 80 F16 noted above.

    How about the non-afterburning, conventional wing version to replace ANG F16’s in the ground attack, recce, NT-ISR roles ? 20 million USD each.


  13. Sanem permalink
    December 1, 2009 5:07 pm

    interesting point

    though the F-22 argument that it would have been cheaper if produced in numbers applies to the B-2 just as well

    and technology does indeed arrive at the point where it supercedes airframes. many of the F-35 super(-expensive)-gadgets like the 360 degree view, radar and engine can and will be installed on other types, like UAVs

    that stealth airframe is great if they ever decide to invade Canada, but when bombing goat-herders, a WWI era with all that tech could do the same job a lot cheaper and probably just as well

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 1, 2009 3:50 pm

    “We took a development holiday for the past 20 years.”

    As I said, progress waits for no one. Remember the battleship holiday after WW 1? We built some pretty battlewagons starting in the late 1930s but they still played second status to the new carriers, and quickly disappeared soon afterward.

  15. December 1, 2009 3:29 pm

    I can’t believe you’re falling for this nonsense. We took a development holiday for the past 20 years. The F-15, F-16 and F-18 have been updated over and over. Same with the Flanker and Fulcrum. In the past we’d have had two more generations of aircraft in the time that these planes have been in service. Look at aircraft development between 1950 and 1970. Now look at it from 1970-2000? See? SEE! Its the industrial base that was allowed to consolidate (and this was done purposefully) that has caused this problem. Free market run amok. Now we’re reaping the whirlwind.

    Additionally. Its not just the development holiday. Fill an F-15 with the F-35’s tech and you have an F-15 that costs 110 million dollars…ask Singapore which just bought the most up to date F-15. The nominal F-16 block 80 will cost approx 85 million dollars and its a lightwt fighter. Its the tech…the avionics that’s driving price, not the airframe.

    Its sad but true. The USMC planned to neck down to fewer types of aircraft. The USAF did too. Its the march of technology. Fewer platforms, more capability.

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