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% more costly than a F-4E.
  • The F-35A is, in percentage of GDP, 154% more costly than a F-4E

So naturally the question arises: is one F-35A better than 2.5 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?

EDIT 2: Fixed up the last two dot points above to read "more costly than" rather than "the value of".


Goyo Marquez said...

I wonder if the total cost of producing pilots and the number of F-4s required to do the job of an F-35 shouldn't enter into the comparison as well?

Unknown said...

America's best WWII fighter, the P-51D, cost $51,000 each in 1945, or $611,000 in 2010 dollars. Bargain?

It's not meaningful to compare craft built decades apart. Instead, compare to the Chinese Chengdu J-20, a current stealth fighter, thought to cost $110m each. Cheaper, but not hugely so.

Thing is, I agree with you that all of this is a waste of money. But the waste is not so much cost overruns, as it is that we're building them at all. From a national security perspective, in the era of asymmetric attacks, our return on investment for having a huge, set-piece military appears to be negative.

One Salient Oversight said...


I agree that the figures I've presented are very hard and fast. One needs to factor in some sort of equivalence as a way of comparing it.

If we look at the P-51 and compare it to the F-35, we see that 2392.2 P-51s can be bought for the real price of an F-35. Now let's factor in changes in technology and create a new jet, the F/A-51 strike fighter, costing $611,000 each.

The first question then becomes whether the effectiveness of 2392.2 F/A-51s in combat is better than a single F-35.

A single F-35 would quite easily shoot down more than 2392.2 WW2 P-51s before one of the P-51s is lucky enough to get a 50 calibre shot off to shoot down an F-35, though in fairness if there was 2392.2 P-51s in a single airspace all attacking a single F-35 the latter would probably run out of ammunition and fuel before a few dozen P-51s have been downed.

But then what about our fictional $611,000 F/A-51? Inferior to the F-35 it may be but I would hazard a guess to say that 2392.2 of them in the sky trying to shoot down a single F-35 would probably succeed.

As for bombing, let's assume that the F/A-51 is equivalent to its WW2 P-51 and carries a maximum of 1000kg of bombs (by contrast, the A-4 Skyhawk carried 4500kg). 2392.2 F/A-51s would be able to drop 9568.8 Mark 82 (500 pound) GPS guided bombs while a single F-35 would be able to drop 30.

Now of course this comparison does not take into account the costs associated with operating 2392.2 F/A-51s, including the training of 2391.1 additional pilots, the cost of at least 1000 times the amount of jet fuel needed and thousands more ground crew to repairs and service the plane.

But even if you take these into account what would the point of equivalence? Let's say that rather than being 2392.1 to 1, let's make it more radically real at say 20 to 1 - that is, 20 F/A-51s are equivalent to one F-35 (in terms of flyaway cost plus cost of use).

That would still mean 80 Mark 82 GPS guided bombs dropped by the 20 F/A-51s against the 30 dropped by the single F-35. As for air to air combat, would 20 F/A-51s control the sky more effectively than a single F-35? We're looking at probably 8 air to air missiles for the single F-35. If we assume that the F/A-51 is very lightweight and carries just two AAMs then we have 40 air to air missiles.

I'm no defense economics strategist or analyst. However I would hazard a guess to say that the US could defend itself just as effectively if it spent 90% less in the case of the F-35.

Fungus FitzJuggler III said...

You all assume war as usual ..... !

Suppose America stops killing foreigners unless they actually get near USA?

Now invest all that time and effort into smarter tech. Why then would anyone want to cause a tsunami on each USA coast?

Anyway, how will a F35 stop that?

One Salient Oversight said...


I'm no pacifist but I'm far from being a warmonger either.

I opposed the war on Iraq vehemently. I also think that the Vietnam war was useless and that historical US operations in Guatemala, Chile and Iran (amongst many) were unconscionable.

Tarric Brooker said...

A single P-51 armed with the latest Air to Air missles would give an F-35 a run to its money. Even if you had a squadron (12) P-51 style aircraft each armed with 4 missles thats 48 missles that the F-35 even with its advanced counter measures would be unable to avoid. With suffecient numbers a force of propellor driven aircraft could overwhelm an entire carrier airwing at a fraction of the cost. Much like in World War 2 dozens if not hundreds of Soviet soldiers laid down their lives in order to destroy a single Nazi machine gun position or tank.

We forget its the airframe that is expensive not so much the weapons themslves.

As far as the Chengdu J-20 it is a far superior aircraft which is why it is so much more expensive, its basically an F-22 Raptor with a Chinese airforce sticker on the side. The F-22 has real stealth as in, it can get in and get out without being detected. The F-35 on the other hand has "stealth aspects" which renders it not much better than current combat aircraft like the Super Hornet or SU-35.

Also the sticker price of an F-35 is getting north of $100 million USD, while the Russian equivalent the SU-35 is only 20-25% of that cost.

From an Australian perspective that is worrying and even senior Australian airforce officers have expressed their concerns. Australia spends $2.4 billion USD on 24 F-35's to replace the ageing standard F/A-18, while in Indonesia they spend $2.4 billion USD on 96 SU-35's. We would or should I say will be both outnumbered and outgunned by an aircraft with both a superior payload and range.

The thing that bothers me from an Australia perspective is that if only a few Indonesian SU-35's get through and destroy our runways we have $2.4 billion worth of aircraft with no where to land and insuffecient range to find elsewhere to land.

Banzai said...

This is precisely the argument that was used in the early 1970s by John Boyd and company to get the USAF to build and buy the F-16 which was supposed to be a cheaper alternative to the F-15. I guarantee that 7.4 F-4s will be more than a match for 1 F-35.

Michael Tiemann said...

This was a bad deal from the beginning. Give me a stealthy and lighter weight F4 with all the other upgrades and improvements that have come along. Could likely have 5 or 6 for the cost of an F35. The Israelites did a lot of great things for fabulous F4. Should have kept growing and evolving. But starting with all new is seldom great. Unbelievable that the Old F4 is still superior to the F35 in so many ways. Two engines please. And. Please a gun Thank you.