US Defense Cost Overruns: F-35 vs F4

The F-35 is a fighter-bomber aircraft that will be used by three of the four branches of the armed forces. The last time the Air Force, Navy and Marines had the same jet fighter was back in the 1960s when they all adopted the F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber.

A good way to determine just how bad defense cost overruns are is to compare the relative cost of the F-35 with the F-4.

Of course there are a number of determining factors. One is the fact that inflation has distorted prices somewhat since the mid 1960s. Another is that real GDP has grown significantly in that time. The final thing to realise is that technology since then has improved markedly, thus granting “more bang for the buck” so to speak. So let’s play with these adjustments:

• F-4E Phantom II “flyaway cost” in 1965 was $2.4 million (wikipedia source)
• Nominal GDP in 1965 Q4 was $747.5 Billion. (St Louis Fed source)
• The cost of a single F-4E Phantom II thus represented approximately 0.00032% of GDP.
• Adjusted for inflation, the cost of a single F-4E Phantom II in 2010 dollars is approximately $16.4 million (inflation calculator)
• F-35A Lightning II “flyaway cost” in 2011 is $122 million (wikipedia source)
• Nominal GDP in 2011 Q2 was $15,012.8 Billion (St Louis Fed source)
• The cost of a single F-35A Lightning II thus represents approximately 0.00081% of GDP.
• The cost of 0.00032% of GDP in 2011 Q2 was $48 million.
• The F-35A is, in dollar figures, 644% the value of a F-4E.
• The F-35A is, in percentage of GDP, 154% the value of a F-4E

So naturally the question arises: is one F-35A better than 2.8 aircraft that could’ve been built at lower cost but with far better technology that was ever available for the F-4? Or, better still, is one F-35A better than 7.4 of these aircraft?

The idea I’m trying to promote here is not a return to building F-4s, nor whether it would be better to build increasingly obsolete F-18s, F-16s or F-15s instead. Rather I’m trying to point out that a cheaper alternative could’ve been built than the F-35, and that this theoretical alternative would’ve replaced the F-18s, F-16s or F-15s.

This theoretical aircraft would not cost $122 million (like the F-35A), but be between $16.4m – $48m. While the chances are that this theoretical aircraft would be inferior in some ways to the F-35, it would still be superior to the aircraft it replaces and probably still be one of the best aircraft around.

Maybe the Pentagon should focus its attention upon cost, and let the developers and engineers work within that framework.

EDIT: Since the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet currently costs $55 million each, maybe it should replace all the obsolete fighter-bombers currently in service in the Air Force, Navy and Marines?


by One Salient Oversight

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