WC is no fan of the military-industrial complex. Or of the percentage of our national budget spent on the ridiculously bloated Department of Defense. At $27.3 million per aircraft, the F-16 is absurdly expensive. But the $98 million F-35 has to be the poster child for everything that is wrong with the U.S. military today.
The F-16 was introduced in 1978. The fighter aircraft have gone through some updates. The current model, the F-16D, had a price tag of $18.8 million in 1998 dollars (about $27.3 million adjusted for inflation) and costs about $24,000 per flight hour to operate. By comparison, the current official unit cost of the F-35A is $98 million, and the cost per flying hour has been $31,900. You can buy almost four F-16Ds for the cost of one F-35A. You’d expect truly awesome performance from an aircraft that costs four times as much.
You’d be disappointed.
A test pilot report obtained by defense journalist David Axe of War is Boring detailed the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in a mock air battle against a two-seat F-16D in January. The F-16D – based on a design developed 40 years ago and manufactured in the mid-1990s – bested the F-35 in close-range combat maneuvers. And the F-16 should have been more sluggish with drop-down tanks.
The F-35 has been criticized by many knowledgeable sources, and not just because it is the most expensive “weapons platform” in history. In a CBC interview, F-16 co-designer Pierre Sprey berated the F-35 as “inherently a terrible plane, because it’s built based on a dumb idea”—a multirole, multi-service aircraft. “You’ve compromised the aircraft horribly for three different missions, and then you’ve compromised it again for three different services.” He said the aircraft was “astonishingly unmaneuverable” because of its ratio of wing surface to weight. Basically, Sprey is describing a camel, a horse designed by a committee. You can read all of the . . . checkered . . . history of this project if you can stomach it here.
Others defend its performance, the multiple roles it can fill, the technology that makes the aircraft. They argue it isn’t intended to engage in dogfights (really?) but instead uses high tech gizmos to blast the bad guys from miles away. Assuming the gizmos work. WC is in no position to evaluate who has the right of the arguments.
But, you say the F-35s are going to be stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, 25 miles southeast of Fairbanks, next door to North Pole, and are going to save the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s economic ass! Isn’t that great?
Yes, but $2.5 trillion for 2,547 aircraft that is are camel, not racehorses? Aren’t there a lot better things we could do with $2.5 trillion than buy a trouble-plagued “weapons platform” that can’t whump a 40-year old aircraft?