How many F-35s has your government bought?

F-35 costs

The F-35 Lightning II is the most expensive military technology in history with a projected life time cost of $1.5tn. Built by Lockheed Martin the F-35 was designed as a “joint strike fighter”, meaning that it would be able fill a large array of roles previously assigned to various different aircraft. The individual jets also come with a hefty price tag, ranging from $79m to $104m. Whilst they have been hailed by some as the fighter of the future, the program has been surrounded in controversy from the start.

President Biden’s broken promises.

President Biden has had to walk back on many of his campaign pledges: student loan forgiveness, new infrastructure plans, healthcare reform and more, with cost often being sited as a reason. However they were still able to raise the defence budget, above the pre-agreed 2015 sequester caps, to $768bn.

A job creating back bone of the economy?

The program’s defenders say that the new 5th generation fighter is a cut above all competitors and will give the US and it’s allies an edge in possible future conflicts.

Whilst it has cost the government of the United States vast sums in paying for the development, and been a large expense for other countries purchasing and maintaining the crafts. The programme has created 125,000 jobs across 46 US states, so it was a surprise to no one when the proposal flew through congress.

The F-35 has also created jobs in ten other partner countries, with the UK being the most involved, given a “tier-1” status, responsible for manufacturing an estimated 20% of parts.

However public money going into domestic industry doesn’t have to be spent on things that kill people. For contrast China is spending a similar amount of money, $1tn, on their Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak nuclear fusion reactor project.

So why is the F-35 so expensive?

It would make sense that the most technically advanced fighter jet of all time would also be the most expensive, but wasn’t just all the fancy new tech that inflated the budget.

The Joint Strike Fighter concept, one plane that does every job, was meant to save on costs. With three variants – one for each branch of the military – that share 70% of their parts. This original target was missed, with them now only having 20% of parts in common, according to General Christopher Bogdan the past Executive Officer for the F-35 programme.

Bogdan, the man in charge of keeping the projects budget in control, said that the contracts signed originally with Lockheed Martin in 2001 meant that the “risk” was all on the government: if something went wrong it would be them and not Lockheed that picked up the bill.

Another part of the blame for the F-35’s ballooning budget has been the strategy of concurrency production insisted on by the Pentagon. Concurrency means starting to build and deliver “production” aircraft before the development and testing phases have been completed. The result of which is that when a problem is found during testing – of which there were many – it incurs a huge cost to fix it on all of the models that have already left the production line.

Technical difficulties

So was it all worth it? The F-35 is probably most well known by members of the public for it’s technical difficulties. One, rather comedic, example is that the F-35 Lightning II can’t fly near lightning.

There has been three high profile crashes: The first in Japan in which the pilot became disorientated and flew straight into the sea – resulting in his death. The second was a British F-35B that failed to take off from the new HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier, and fell into the ocean. Then the most recent indecent in which a Korean pilot performed the first “belly” landing of an F-35, after the landing gear failed to engage.

In 2019, the first year that the F-35 saw combat, the US Marine Corps sent six F-35Bs to Iraq, where they took part in operations to clean up the remnants of ISIS. However during this first deployment they were only able to fly one mission per plane every three days. It was also reported by Andrew Cockburn that the Pentagon’s chief testing official had said that had those F-35s come up against opposition aircrafts, they would not have been able to survive without assistance.

This came after a 2015 mock dog fight in which an F-35 was beaten by an F-16, a much older and cheaper plane. This sent waves around the defence community and the Pentagon was quick to hit back with excuses and concluding that, in fact, it doesn’t matter because the F-35 has such superior stealth technology that it won’t ever have to dog fight. People were also asked to not draw any conclusions as it was still very early in development. However it didn’t seem that much had improved by 2020 when after a training operation pilots said that: The F-35 can be sluggish compared to the F-16.”

In the same way that the F-35 cannot best the F-16 at it’s speciality – arial combat – it fails to surpass the A-10 Warthog at close ground support. Beloved by the troops that it protects, the A-10 is despised by defence contractors for being too old, cheap and reliable.

It’s clear to see that there’s far more money to be made in designing $400,000 “magic helmets” that allow pilots to see through the floor, than there is in maintaining the old A-10 from which the pilots use binoculars and their own eyes to see what’s happening on the ground. The problem though, is that the F-35’s magic helmets have an eighth of a second delay when looking through the floor, resulting in them missing the target when moving at high speeds. The A-10 has no such problems.

Sources

  • Numbers of F-35 received comes from:https://www.f-16.net/aircraft-database/F-35/serials-and-inventory/
  • The price estimate for each F-35 variant comes from the given price in the most recent fully delivered batch (LRIP 14). Most units were actually purchased at a much higher price, so the "estimated spent" for each country (especially the US) is likely lower than reality.
  • The "per tail per year" running costs comes from this Pentagon review: https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-21-439.pdf
  • Salaries come from the average wage for each job in each country according to www.salaryexpert.com
  • The estimates for numbers of Wind turbines comes from the price given for a 1MW turbine on https://weatherguardwind.com/how-much-does-wind-turbine-cost-worth-it/
  • The estimates given for numbers of solar farms comes from https://startupback.com/solar-farm-cost-breakdown/, where the price estimate is given for a 1MW solar farm
  • The number of homes that the solar farms or wind turbines could power is based off the estimate that 1MW can power 200 homes.

F-35 costs The F-35 Lightning II is the most expensive military technology in history with a projected life time cost of $1.5tn. Built by Lockheed Martin the F-35 was designed as a “joint strike fighter”, meaning that it would be able fill a large array of roles previously assigned to various different aircraft. The individual…

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