The F-35 Is Not as Expensive As You Think: During a Red Flag wargame exercise several years ago, a single F-35 was able to find, identify and destroy a small fleet of enemy fighters without being detected. The event offered substantial evidence in favor of many F-35 advocates and Air Force leaders who were able to see the operational impact of the jet in a warfare scenario. The wargame represented one of the first key times an F-35 fully functioned as intended or envisioned in a massive, great power warfare scenario involving advanced adversaries and enemy 5th-Gen aircraft in a great power warfare circumstance.
F-35 in a More Prominent Role
It also served to address an essential question about the F-35.
What if – when operating within a series of complex interwoven threat and attack-vector variables in major warfare amid escalating threats – a small group of F-35s could perform a series of massive, high-risk missions to quickly achieve war aims and avert protracted and highly lethal extended warfare? High-target, precision strikes might accomplish more than a slow ground warfare strategy.
Cost analysts and F-35 detractors might come around to the high cost of the F-35 program, should a large and extremely impactful warfare outcome be quickly achieved by a small number of F-35s, therefore preventing a need for extended, high-casualty operations?
Could the existing F-35s, even if the original fleet-size objectives were upheld, actually save the Pentagon money over the long term while increasing pilot safety?
An interesting 2020 Mitchell Institute Policy Paper, titled “Resolving America’s Defense Strategy-Resource Mismatch,” maintains that F-35 acquisition and sustainment costs, when viewed as part of an overall, cumulative operational cost equation, actually prove to be far more economical than current critics understand.
F-35 Paper Findings
The flaw, according to the Mitchell paper, is procedural. The paper argues that the methods and criteria used for determining costs and F-35 affordability have not been accurate.
The principle finding of the Mitchell analysis is the need to identify metrics sufficient to clearly indicate the cost-saving benefits of stealth aircraft when viewed through a lens of mission objectives and successful accomplishment.
“If superior technologies and design allow F-35s to secure mission effects that would otherwise take multiple, less capable aircraft to achieve (and at higher risk), then F-35s will actually drive value across many dimensions of the greater warfighting system … Looking to future investments, the concept of “cost” needs to focus less on individual systems and more on the enterprise resources required to achieve mission goals,” the paper states.
There is also the question of fleet percentages, given that the current Air Force fleet consists of 81 percent 4th-gen aircraft and only 19 percent 5th-Gen. What does this mean in operational terms? In the case of deployment and availability, should aircraft be needed suddenly for pressing missions, primarily 4th-Gen platforms will be most of what is available, depending upon forward basing and readiness.
Would using larger numbers of 4th-Gen aircraft for longer duration missions at higher risk ultimately cost more than simply deploying a small group of necessary F-35s? Depending upon the operational task requirements for a mission, that might be the case.
Shouldn’t this kind of equation be of paramount consideration amid ongoing debates about F-35 cost assessments, production plans, and 5th-Gen fleet size determinations?
As part of an effort to propose a solution to understanding F-35 costs, the Mitchell paper makes the case for an alternative cost metric or method of analysis through which to address some of the pressing questions about F-35 cost issues. The paper seeks to make the case for a “cost-per-effect” analysis model for discerning aircraft costs.
“Cost-per-effect” is an assessment measure that affords the ability to assess the “business case” behind comparative technologies through the operational lens of enterprise mission effectiveness and fiscal efficiency, not just lowest up-front per-unit cost for a piece of equipment that may only address one facet of the kill chain,” the paper says. In terms of a numerical breakdown, the Mitchell paper says the hourly operational costs of an F-35 are in the range of $35K, whereas a report from Defense News in 2021 says F-15EX operating costs are roughly $29K per hour, and a Jane’s estimate puts the F/A-18 hourly operating costs at $24K.
According to this available information, yes it appears the hourly operational costs for the F-35 are slightly higher than its 4th-Gen counterparts, however, what happens when an overall cost-assessment metric is analyzed with a mind to performance, operational use, and mission effectiveness?
Desert Storm Analysis
The study performed an analysis of the opening air strikes of Desert Storm many years ago, with a specific mind to what assets and resources were necessary to achieve the mission objective, using the “cost-per-effect” assessment model.
In the findings, 41 aircraft were necessary to provide sweep-escort missions, suppression of enemy air defenses, and then actual bombing attacks.
Using stealth platforms, however, the analysis found that only 20 aircraft were needed.
Stealth aircraft could in effect accomplish all of the same objectives in a much more streamlined, yet high-performance mission accomplishment-oriented fashion, therefore actually reducing the overall operational costs of the mission. Perhaps of even greater significance, the use of stealth vastly improves survivability, meaning the pilots performing the attack missions have a much greater chance of survival.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
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