The U.S. Air Force has countless fighter jets that have been called a success or a failure over the years. Remember that over a decade ago, the F-22 Raptor program was canceled, and only 186 planes were built, with many calling it a failure. And yet, the Air Force could only dream of having the total 750 jets they initially wanted to buy from Lockheed Martin. So what makes a fighter jet a success or not? This expert gives us a long-form look at that every question:
As the United States once again finds itself focused on deterring near-peer opponents, it means returning to a time of assessing the efficacy of defense programs that may never actually see combat — and that means taking a long hard look at what makes these high-profile fighter programs truly successful in the eyes of the American and global public.
Right now, the United States has at least two next-generation fighter programs in development — the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and the Navy’s F/A-XX fighters — and although we’re still years away from these jets entering service, Defense officials have already begun preparing the American people for a bit of sticker shock. In April of 2022, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall hinted that the Air Force’s next fighter may be the most expensive aircraft program in history, with a per-unit price tallied in the “multiple” hundreds of millions of dollars.
“This is a number that’s going to get your attention,” Kendall said. “It’s going to be an expensive airplane.”
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is currently the most expensive defense program in history, and its high costs and developmental setbacks have led many to consider the fighter itself to be a failure, despite it being the most technologically advanced fighter ever to fly.
Are America’s next fighters already doomed to the same perceptual fate as failures-of-finance, or is there more to this question than dollars and cents? Because the truth is, the F-35’s troubled and expensive development hasn’t been particularly unique — even among jets we now see as resounding successes.
Cutting-edge aviation technology is always expensive
It should come as no surprise that the next generation of airpower will come with some positively shocking price tags. Practically every notable advancement in military aviation has come at what most of us would consider to be a mind-boggling cost. The B-29 Stratofortress’ development ran in parallel to the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bombs it would ultimately carry to Japanese targets. And while the Manhattan Project was famously expensive at $1.9 billion, developing the B-29 that carried it cost over a billion dollars more (and it’s important to remember that we’re talking about 1940s dollars here).
Bombers aren’t the only platforms to break the bank, of course. The fan-favorite F-14 Tomcat may have been an incredibly capable carrier-defense aircraft and air dominance fighter, but it was also a swirling tornado of spent funds and maintenance woes. By 1988, the latest iteration F-14D cost the Navy $74 million per aircraft — that’s better than $185 million per jet in today’s dollars and more than a hundred million per airframe more than this year’s F-35A.
Our perceptions of defense programs are based on much more than actual combat performance
Leading the world in airpower has never been a frugal enterprise, but it isn’t always easy to divine the return America gets on these investments. The B-29 played a pivotal role in the Pacific theater of World War II and even delivered the bombs that would bring about a decisive end to the conflict. There’s little doubt as to the significance of the B-29 in aviation history.
But the F-14 Tomcat was designed and built for a new World War that never manifested. Its years in service were largely spent not as a combat asset, but as a deterrent presence — standing ready for swarms of Soviet bombers armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and hydrogen bombs to come pouring over the horizon. The F-14 was built to win a war America hoped would never come… and then it didn’t.
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So, the United States did away with the expensive-to-fly F-14 in favor of the seemingly more economically viable F/A-18 Super Hornet; while other fighters of the same era — the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle — not only remain integral facets of America’s fighter fleets today but are even still in production.
If it weren’t for Hollywood blockbusters turning the F-14 into a pop culture phenomenon, it’s hard to say how it would be remembered today. Would America think of its incredible potential for air-to-air combat… or would it think of all the Tomcats lost due to engine issues, the 30-60 hours of maintenance required for each hour of flight, or the massive cost of procuring and maintaining the fleet?
Was the F-14 Tomcat a successful fighter program or a multi-billion dollar boondoggle?
As an admitted F-14 fanboy, it pains me to say it, but we’d likely remember the Tomcat very differently if Pete “Maverick” Mitchell had joined the Air Force instead of the Navy. Here’s a look at headlines in the LA Times from the 1980s to the early 2000s about everyone’s favorite carrier fighter:
Was the F-14 program a success? Was it well worth the money invested in it? From a combat standpoint, the answer would probably be no — at least, as far as the United States is concerned (Iran has claimed to have a great deal of success with it). Throughout its 32 years of service with the U.S. Navy, Tomcats recorded just five air-to-air kills. During that same span of time, the Navy lost 68 pilots and radar intercept officers in Tomcat crashes and mishaps.
But here’s the thing… the F-14 isn’t remembered as a failure at all. In fact, it doesn’t just make it onto my list of best fighter platforms of the 20th century, it ranks among the best fighters of all time on lists published all over the internet.
And the truth is… there’s good reason for that. The F-14 was designed to take off from carriers, cover great distances at high speeds to intercept and engage Soviet bombers from dozens of miles away, carrying some of the largest and most powerful air-to-air weapons ever designed at the time. The Tomcat’s job was to hold back the nuclear tide of World War III from the vast expanses of the world’s oceans, and its reputation as being capable of doing just that played a vital role in preventing such a conflict from ever starting to begin with.
The Tomcat’s perception as a missile-packing hotrod that could take on the best fighters and bombers the Soviets had to offer forced America’s opposition to consider the fact that failure was a real possibility if they attempted to engage the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike groups. As a result of that and countless other efforts, the Tomcat never really had to prove just how capable it could be. It did, however, get the chance to show off on the big screen in 1986, leading to a recruiting boom that benefitted Naval aviation for years to come.
And for a fighter program designed and built amid a decade-spanning nuclear staring contest, that’s genuinely what success looks like.
So, what about the F-35?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter offers a unique case study into the differing perceptions of a program from inside and outside the defense community. Like the F-14, it was designed and built with a hypothetical future conflict with a near-peer in mind. Like the F-14, its role as a deterrent to war is arguably just as valuable as its prowess in combat. And, like the F-14, those who’ve flown in the aircraft tend to speak highly of the capabilities the platform brings to bear.
But unlike the F-14, the F-35 is regarded by many within the public as a failure.
Among F-35 pilots, you’ll often hear nothing but high praise for what is objectively the most technologically advanced tactical aircraft ever to see service. And among national militaries, the F-35 has consistently beaten its American and European competition to secure so many procurement contracts that today, more nations are flying the F-35 than there are stealth fighters in all of Russia.
So why is the F-35 perceived to be such a problem-ridden fighter by the general public despite pilots singing its praises, large-scale war games demonstrating its efficacy, and foreign governments ponying up billions to park a few of them in their hangars?
A great deal of this perceptual gap is borne out of the fact that the F-35’s acquisition process deserves every bit of the criticism that it’s received, and it’s difficult for many of us to separate the boondoggle that was its acquisition from the fighter itself in our minds. After all, most people will never fly in or alongside an F-35 to see what it can do, but we’re all exposed to headlines about the problems the jet faces.
The problem with the media’s depictions of fighter aircraft
It isn’t just dollars and cents affecting public perceptions of the F-35. It’s also important to consider how governmental transparency shapes how we think about fighter programs. The U.S. government has been very open about the F-35’s development, challenges, shortcomings, and successes (though arguably not always completely forthright). The same can’t be said for Chinese and Russian stealth fighter development, as these nations are bereft of free and independent media to hold them accountable. Russian and Chinese media only report on program successes — because failures are not disclosed… and as a result, America acknowledging failures makes it look an awful lot like America is the only one experiencing them.
While admittedly anecdotal, a quick search in the news tab of Google for each aircraft as I write this shows that stories about the J-20 are all about deployments and capabilities, Su-57 coverage is largely about potential deployments… and F-35 news is utterly dominated by stories about F-35 production being halted because…
A fifth-tier subcontractor made a magnet that includes a cobalt and samarium alloy that came from China that had no effect whatsoever on aircraft security or performance. In fact, none of the components delivered with this alloy need to be replaced or have proven to be problematic, the U.S. simply has rules against sourcing any part of fighter components from China.
This isn’t a slight on media outlets covering what little is revealed about the J-20, often off-the-wall Russian statements about the Su-57, or the plethora of disclosed headaches being managed at the F-35 program office. It’s really just meant to remind us all that the different levels of transparency associated with these programs can have a palpable effect on how we perceive them.
After all, Russia has built just seven production Su-57s with the first promptly crashing immediately after take-off and China’s J-20 has been reliant on Russian-sourced 4th generation engines throughout much of its production. Setbacks and delays are not at all unique to American fighter programs. The lack of transparency from Russian and Chinese programs creates a form of survivorship bias, where most of the non-aviation-nerd public sees stories about Su-57 performance or J-20 upgrades alongside yet another story about F-35 production stopping and infers the American fighter is worse than its seemingly less troubled competitors.
The F-15: A case study in fighter program success?
It’s practically sacrilegious that we’ve made it this far into a discussion about what makes an American fighter program successful without mentioning the elephant in the room — that is, if elephants came with a 43-foot wingspan and a pair of afterburning Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220s. The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle is easily the most prolific fighter of the Cold War and is arguably the most successful fighter platform of the 20th century. With over 1,000 airframes delivered to more than a half-dozen nations since production began in 1972, the F-15 boasts an unmatched-in-the-modern-era air-to-air combat record of 104 wins and zero losses.
The F-15 is so capable that it’s served as the basis for countless proposals that seem to border on the realm of science fiction, from being used as a testbed for modified hypersonic AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, to actually shooting a satellite in orbit with a missile, to strapping an ICBM to its back to place new satellites in orbit. The F-15 is such a dominant fighter that an F-15E Strike Eagle once took out an airborne Iraqi helicopter gunship with a 2,000-pound bomb. You could fill a book with stories about F-15s landing safely with one wing, proposals to put it on aircraft carriers, and attempts to incorporate stealth characteristics into its Cold War design…
But depending on how old you are and how clear your memory is, you may recall seeing a lot of headlines about the F-15 in the 1970s and 1980s that were remarkably similar to headlines we see today about the F-35.
On April 9, 1997, the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin unveiled the world’s first true stealth fighter — the F-22 Raptor. While Lockheed’s F-117 Nighthawk was actually a somewhat sluggish attack aircraft with no real air-to-air chops to speak of, the new Raptor was not only stealthier, it was also among the most maneuverable and capable dogfighters in history right out of the box, leveraging avionics so advanced pilots have joked that practically anyone could fly it, alongside extreme aerobatic performance borne out of its computer-aided fly-by-wire controls and 180-degree thrust-vector control.
When the F-22 entered service in 2005 — meant to serve as an air superiority replacement for the F-15 Eagle — it was so far ahead of any other fighter on the planet that it served as the basis for an entirely new generation of fighter aircraft. Today, some 17 years later, only three fighters have emerged that have been considered advanced enough to join the F-22 in the 5th-gen fraternity… but even among them, the F-22 still reigns supreme. In fact, despite having a design finalized before the turn of the century, the F-22 still has the smallest radar cross-section and the highest top speed of any stealth fighter on the planet. When any nation sets about building a fighter today, the F-22 remains the measuring stick by which performance is compared.
But despite the F-22’s mind-boggling combat potential… it’s never once won a fight in the sky.
Of course, there’s good reason for that. The F-22 Raptor entered service fourteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union and seven years before China’s Xi Jinping came to power with a renewed focus on military expansion and modernization. In a stroke of what might seem like budgetary bad luck, the United States had developed and fielded the most incredible and expensive air superiority fighter in the history of airpower just in time for it to sit on the sidelines during a multiple-decade-spanning fight against opponents with no airpower to square off against. Despite initial plans for 750 F-22s, orders were soon slashed to just 186, with even fewer than that still in service today.
There’s really no argument to be made that the F-22 program was a financial success. The final 60 F-22s procured by the Air Force rang in at $137 million each in 2011 dollars. That’s the equivalent of paying $180 million a piece in 2022 dollars — comparable to the F-14 in 1988 and, again, a hundred million more per airframe than the F-35. If you roll all the F-22’s research and development costs and upgrades incorporated before the end of production, you get an absolutely astonishing figure: $377 million per fighter in 2011, or a whopping $443 million in 2022.
In terms of combat, the F-22 first saw action in September of 2014, dropping 1,000-pound GPS-guided bombs on ISIS targets in Syria. Since then, F-22s have been used for similar bombing runs and as an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform for ongoing coalition operations in the same theater — a far cry from the air dominance mission it was specifically designed for.
But the F-22s lack of air-to-air engagements isn’t a sign of its failure as an air superiority fighter, but rather its immense success. Like the F-15, which has scored most of its airborne victories under foreign banners, the most powerful part of the F-22 isn’t its afterburners, its missiles, or even its stealth.
What makes these fighters truly successful… is their reputations.
The real measure of a fighter’s success outside of combat is its ability to help deter the next war
The F-15 and F-22 were both designed to fight and win against the most capable fighters any opponent could field — in fact, the F-15 was designed to dogfight against an imagined MiG-25 that was far more capable than the Soviet fighter turned out to be. In that regard, both of these fighters were an unparalleled success, and as a result, neither found themselves in the large-scale conflicts they were designed to dominate.
There are certainly countless reasons why the Cold War never turned hot in the way so many feared it would, just as there are many elements of U.S.-Sino relations helping keep today’s powers from resorting to war. But one element of both staring matches that can’t be overstated is the immense power of deterrence as a military strategy.
Whenever we run stories about new developments related to secretive programs like the B-21 Raider or the NGAD fighter program, we get comments and messages asking why the U.S. would disclose this information when it will obviously end up in the hands of national competitors like China and Russia. The simple answer to that question is… those are exactly the hands the Pentagon wants these stories to end up in.
A secret weapon offers no value until the fighting has already started, and while it could have a huge effect on the outcome of a conflict, the United States prefers preventing the conflict from starting in the first place. And like anyone who’s spent time in crowded bars full of rowdy college kids can tell you, the most effective way to avoid a fight is often to look and act like you’re ready to win one. Bad actors like overcompensating frat boys or the Chinese military aren’t looking to assert dominance over the guy who looks like Dwayne Johnson with cauliflower ear and a gun in his waistband — the risk of losing is too high. They look for easier prey.
Like China forcefully capturing oil rigs from nations with a limited capability to fight back, like Vietnam. Or Russia invading Ukraine because they perceived them to be a weaker opponent Putin believed could be defeated in a matter of days. In the real world of geopolitics, much like the dimly-lit dance floor and your local bar, perception goes a long way.
In the 1980s and ’90s, nobody wanted to square off in the sky against the dominant might of American fighters. In fact, the F-14 would have secured more air-to-air kills in the Persian Gulf War had its fearsome reputation not prompted Iraqi fighters to turn the other way — and fly directly into waiting American F-15s. In the 21st century, America’s F-22 Raptor continues to carry that mantle: the fighter nobody wants to fight. When diplomats walk into conference rooms to draw hard lines on a map, it’s not the tone of their voice that makes people sit up and pay attention. It’s the understanding that these lines are backed up by the most potent and capable military force America’s massive defense budget can muster.
The lump that forms in the throats of America’s opponents when they think about having to square up with platforms like the F-22 isn’t easily quantifiable. It’s not something that can be measured directly in dollars and cents, nor is it even always conspicuous.
But in a very real way… that lump is the only real measure of a fighter program’s success in the absence of a large-scale conflict. Until war actually breaks out, the rest is subject to interpretation.
Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx.