The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

By Stew Magnuson

iStock photo

The knives are out again for the F-35 joint strike fighter.

For anyone who has followed this program, periodic flurries of criticism are fairly regular occurrences. They usually follow Government Accountability Office reports, leaked or officially released test-and-evaluation documents, or in this case, some attention from the mainstream press.

One prominent think tank expert called the most recent flareup “a media feeding frenzy” and essentially blamed reporters for all the undue attention.

At the end of its run it will be the most expensive weapon system ever produced, employing tens of thousands of workers in several countries, and news — good or bad — can move the stock market value of its prime contractor Lockheed Martin and cause ripple effects in the industrial base. The F-35 will always receive a lot of attention from the press.

And who can blame the media for reporting that the new Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr., when recently announcing a tactical air study looking at the numbers of jet fighters the service needs, also suggested a reduced role for the F-35A.

“I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft,” he told reporters. “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our ‘high end’ [fighter], we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight. … We don’t want to burn up capability now and wish we had it later.”

It was perfectly reasonable to then ask if the Air Force is going to stick with its planned buy of 1,763 aircraft. Suggesting that the Air Force will only roll out the F-35 during high-end fights or special missions calls into question how many it needs. After all, I only wear tuxedos for special occasions. That’s why I don’t have 10 of them in my closet.

Prediction: whatever new number this tac-air study comes up with, there will still be critics stating there are too many F-35s, citing the cost of the platform and its ongoing sustainability woes, with some going so far as to demand that the program be canceled.

It’s fine to criticize programs such as the F-35 whether a member of the media or a member of the public. But most of us mere mortals will never know what it’s like to fly in one. We can’t test drive it to make up our own minds like when we go to the Ford dealership to try a new Fusion.

But there are some independent people who can.

I’m talking about the growing number of new nations who are lining up to buy the aircraft — the ones who have no obligation to acquire what is a very expensive aircraft, but choose to do so anyway.

When I hear criticism that the F-35 isn’t up to snuff, I always wonder about the new international customers. Belgium, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Poland and possibly Finland have all looked at the aircraft — done their comparison shopping and due diligence one would assume — and said they are willing to pay the price tag while accepting some of its current shortcomings.

The per-aircraft procurement costs and per-hour flying costs are important numbers, but more emphasis should be put on the value the aircraft brings to the fight. Is it worth the high price tag?

That’s a much harder and more subjective question.

One can look to the V-22 Osprey as an example.

The tilt-rotor aircraft was also a big leap in capability with revolutionary features. It too had a long, troubled development story with cost overruns and delays. It took 24 years from the first contract award in 1983 to fielding it in 2007. By that time, development costs alone amounted to $27 billion.

Even worse, 30 personnel were killed in crashes during experiments over the course of its development. One of these tragedies in 1992 killed seven in front of an audience of VIPs, senior officers and lawmakers. The worst day came on April 8, 2000, when 19 Marines were killed during an experiment. The price to develop the V-22 was truly much higher than $27 billion.

But was it worth it?

There isn’t a lot of criticism of the program today because it delivers what it promised: namely speed, which on the battlefield equals time — a most finite and valuable commodity to combatant commanders. The V-22 quickly proved itself as a logistics and search-and-rescue aircraft.

It can deliver Marines to a battlefield faster, rescue a downed airman quicker and get vital supplies to those in need in less time than legacy helicopters.

There are already some 600 F-35s in U.S. and international inventories, but the platform doesn’t have the same opportunities to show its value to the public or lawmakers who fund it.

We’re told in simulations it can eat the Chinese and Russian jet fighters for lunch in combat engagements but proving that beyond a doubt will take a shooting war with one of these nations. And who wants that?

The F-35 can do a lot more than air-to-air missions, of course. It’s up to the three services that fly the aircraft — the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — to show the critics, the public and appropriators in Congress that its value exceeds its price tag.

Topics: Budget, Air Power

Comments (14)

Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

Thank you for a very adult comment!

BS at 12:19 AM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

Who would you rather be: a nation that goes "all-in" on a $1 trillion aircraft buy for uber-expensive stealth technology, with its unsustainable hourly costs or America's enemies who spend $10-20 billion to find a way to beat it with an upgraded S-400 or the like. Stealth does not make you invisible or invincible, it just gives you a small radar cross-section. We need the F-35, but in every war we have fought since 1991, the U.S. / NATO has eventually degraded the opponent's IADS and then used older generation / cheaper aircraft to carry most of the load. Unfortunately, older aircraft don't get USAF generals & officers promoted. We need a sustainable mix of new and old aircraft technology for the future.

Colonel Gregory Marston (ret) at 1:03 PM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

Too often the US begins big expensive programs with high front end loaded R&D costs and then reduces the number of units. This results in huge waste and a loss of credibility.

Examples include the B-1, B-2, F-22, Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt destroyer, etc. The US military needs to develop more reasonable cost and performance expectations on a program level and then deliver. Buying more F-15's, F-18's may make sense militarily and economically, but let's make sure we buy enough F-35's to improve our total unit cost and still get access to the features it offers. Will we pull the same with the coming B-21, the Ford class and the new Constellation frigate program?

Set realistic goals and needs for military procurement projects and buy the "right" number and stop promising to buy 1000 of something if realistically, we will only buy 250 in the end. It makes everybody look bad and it wastes money.

Let the military set up a list of desired traits and delivery timeline, the congress provide a budget and hire professional project managers to deliver or say it cannot be done with the scope, time and cost proposed. Our current approach is to deliver less scope in more time at more cost. This has to stop.

Dan at 3:06 PM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

There is no 'value' argument for the F35.

The program has cost so much money that even if the F35 lives up to its promise, as the Osprey eventually did, it will still turn out to be a bad deal for the JSF development partners.

We could have done almost anything else with that money and gotten a better result. The F35 is no F22, nor is it an Osprey. Its a Lemon.

Country's that join the program now (and are used as 'evidence' of the programs success by this article.) are besides the point. The fact that we may someday have a functional fighter is not in question, the question is at what cost.

David at 11:25 PM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

There is no F-35 "price tag" that means anything in this most expensive acquisition ever. The true cost of an F-35 prototype being manufactured in the still-developing program has never been audited by the Defense Contract Audit Agency, which by the way has an office in Ft. Worth. The only "price tag" bogus numbers come from Lockheed (e.g. $80M). Attempts by F-35 critics (e.g. POGO) to come up with a better number ($115M) depend upon looking at budget numbers, but that's a waste of time. The Pentagon itself has never been audited, and we know that the OCO slush fund was used on F-35.

Don Bacon at 9:25 AM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

Regarding the bogus claims of F-35 performance, the still-in-development F-35 system has not completed operational testing so the jury is still out. Red Flag training exercises are not tests, so any USAF PR on Red Flag should be laughed at.

Don Bacon at 5:17 PM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

Lemon??? Really?
Go ask the British, they set sail today with the most F35s on a flight deck so far. The future demands 5th generation aircraft. Ask the Israelis...

HR at 10:01 AM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

The Joint Strike Failure is a victory of the military industrial political Complex over common sense.

It's the world's most expensive "fifth generation" Brewster Buffalo.

Legacy Driver at 3:40 PM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

This is a rather pointless discussion because the F35 value cannot be determined until the development program is finished and the F-35 capability's are known to meet, or not meet its requirements.

Today, over 20 years into the most expensive military program ever undertaken, and it still cannot pass basic tests for preparedness or enter mass production. Any argument on behalf of the F35 is foolish becasue we still dont know if it can even do the job it was built for. Today, it cannot.

Lindsay at 10:59 PM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

If we had ignored the idiots years ago, we'd have three times as many F22s

Maaku at 10:10 PM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

There is no substitute for the best fighter in the world. Why isn't Russia ever going to invade the Balkans? Because 100 F-22s and F-35s would be there a day later and even their vaunted S-400 missile batteries would pose little opposition.

noteatern at 3:03 AM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

The F-35’s cost efficiencies must apply adult math, not kindergarten math. After all, if kindergartners were asked to choose whether a $3,000 gravity bomb was cheaper or a $30,000 precision guided munition (PGM), they would assume apples vs apples and choose the lower price tag. Adult math, however, factors in the average 35 gravity bombs necessary – $105,000 total – to ensure a bunker’s destruction from altitude (Gulf War analysis). Adult math shows the PGM exponentially more cost efficient, especially with fewer sorties, less fuel, maintenance and risk.

Most get it, but some look at the F-35 and revert to kindergarten apples vs apples comparisons between 4th and 5th gen production and maintenance costs and nostalgically choose that 1980s-era comfort food over the force multiplying F-35.

Meanwhile, adults in F-35 cockpits plainly see kill ratios as high as 24:1 at Red Flag exercises, and this while flying a plane designed for strike missions first, air-to-air second. Also, the Air Force has compared penetrating strike scenarios in which a pair of F-16s require up to 20 supporting aircraft (EW, SEAD, A2A) to match what a pair of F-35s can do alone after tanking up. Care to guess the costs of those 20 supporting planes?

Now adult math finds the F-35’s cost savings more than exponential, it’s parabolic. Haters are reduced to desperate ankle biting of these 24:1 and 20-for-2 test results while offering no alternative results of their own, perhaps suspecting the F-35 saves bundles even with watered down ratios. They simply don’t want to talk about it. Denialism gets them back to comfy kindergarten apples vs apples math.

TMark at 2:30 PM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. flew F-16's, and therein may be the problem. If you drive a good ole' GMC dump truck, you relish its reliable brute force. If you need to make a u-turn in 36" high snow with no more space than the length of the truck, you'd want the Mercedes Unimog. You wouldn't relish the additional maintenance or cost of parts, but you'd relish it when you needed it to survive and didn't freeze to death. I love the idea of adding the F-15EX for a variety of reasons. It's a better pure interceptor for our borders due to speed, range and the 22 air-air missiles make a statement. It's a great addition to serve in lesser contested areas. But if we actually need to win a war? 4th Generation fighters not only won't win a war, relying on them is why we'd lose one. Add what you will, but don't subtract the winning part.

Tom at 9:17 PM
Re: The F-35 Question - Value vs. Price Tag

Among the satellite nations mentioned was not Norway and we do know about the armtwisting that was done by the american diplomats for buying the F35. There is also a common theme between the satellite nations. They all need US protection.

Tomas Nordstrand at 1:24 AM
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