Sunday, January 16, 2011

Can America Afford the F-35 Jet Fighter?

    The F-35 Jet Fighter is said to be the costliest Defense Program ever.  We are scheduled to buy some 2443 fighters at a flyaway cost of some $87 to $157  million for each plane, or in other words up to 382 billion dollars over the full purchase, depending on who you believe (hint:  pick the higher estimates).  This is the cause of some great debate in Congress,

   My own opinion is that all programs need to be scrutinized in the wake of 10 years of unrestrained spending, eight years by supposedly conservative big-government Bush Republicans, and 2 years of granola-fed Democrats. But fiscal restraint needs to be separated from the program itself, which despite cost overruns and other problems, I would argue that the American defense contractors (Lockheed Martin in this case) delivers better value than anyone in the world.

  You can say what you want about American defense contractors, but they are number one in the world.  Saddam Hussein provided us with a basis for comparison between Soviet-made aircraft and arrmament versus US-made stuff.  Namely, we blasted everything out of the sky.  Recently there has been some fuss about China introducing a radar-evading fighter jet.  The Chinese have some very capable engineers, no question.  But I don't think that anyone can actually compete with the US.

  As far as the unit cost of a fighter plane is concerned, to me it is remarkable that military aircraft are not all that expensive compared to civilian aircraft.  Commercial airliners can cost $200 million, for what that's worth.      So the recent  converts to tight fiscal policies will be blowing smoke about military waste and extravagance, but I believe that is misplaced. Air Force equipment wins.  And if you believe that commercial jets are affordable, then military jets are also affordable.

  I do question whether we truly need all 2443 fighter jets, however, and I also question the economics which says that they should all be built within a period of a few years.  Why do we need so many and why all at once?  I think the best economics is probably to turn out lower numbers with much longer build times, maybe 20 years rather than five.

Another question is whether the country with the best fighter jets actually wins the war.  Gulf War I and II have taught us that the armament and avionics are critically important.  Our missiles are programmed to read maps, turn corners, identify enemy targets and blow them away.  Do you really need to have an exceptional aircraft to deliver these armaments?  

Would it make sense to rely on older airframes?  I admit I have always liked the philosophy of the A-10 Warthog.  That plane, which is a close-air support aircraft and not directly comparable to the F-35 in terms of its mission, was basically an inexpensive airframe which could carry a whopping number of missiles.  No it isn't stealth; and no, it is not nearly the fastest plane out there.  But it is good enough to launch missiles .

Here's a video:

The Air Force bought some 716 of these. I'm not sure what it would cost in 2015 dollars, but I would guess something in the range of $35 to $50 million might be reasonable.  Other fighter aircraft, such as the Mirage and MIG aircraft, might come in at the same range, but none of them have the capabilities of the F-35.  So, and the allegedly high price tag of the F-35 seems to me to be a reasonable value.   If it were a car, most people would gladly pay three times as much for a new version rather than taking a discount for a twenty year old model.  Particularly if your life depended on having the best performance.

If Congress has sabotaged the budget over the years, it isn't Lockheed Martin's fault.  Nevertheless, I think the Air Force is going to have to look at smaller acquisitions, and longer production cycles in order to survive in a budget cutting environment.

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