Winslow Wheeler, one of the Washington’s most respected defense budget experts, has penned a detailed analysis of how much the Pentagon pays for maintenance and operations to keep its planes in the air. Below, we offer a very condensed version of his report. The Editor.

Early in a weapon program’s history, there is virtually always a promise that it will be cheaper to operate than the aircraft it is to replace. That rarely turns out to be the case. This is not
new; just as the Air Force promised the F-22 would be cheaper (by 35 percent) to operate than the F-15, it also promised back in the 1970s that the F-15 would be cheaper to operate than the F-4 it replaced. The higher O&S costs are rarely divulged — or are even the subject of inquiry. When questions are asked, actual costs are masked by several layers of fog. What is available on scarce occasion is incomplete, and some of it is misleading.

In 2010, the cost per flying hour for the F-22 and B-2 stealth aircraft were over $55,000 and $135,000, respectively – tens of thousands, sometimes almost twice, the cost per flying hour of the aircraft they replace.

For 2012, the Air Force requested $104 million in regular procurement for the F-22
(although all 188 copies have already been procured in previous years), and it seeks an
additional $232 million for modifications. In the separate “Research and Development
Air Force” account, it seeks $718 million more. For the F-15 (all variants) the Air force
seeks $222 million in modifications and $207 million in R&D. These amounts total –
• F-22: $1,051 million.
• F-15: $430 million.

For the B-2A, the Air Force seeks $41 million for modifications and another $49 million
for something called “Post Production Support;” In the Air Force R&D account, the Air
Force seeks $341 million for the B-2A.
For the B-1B, the Air Force seeks $198 million for modifications and $5 million for
“support.” In R&D the Air Force seeks another $33 million.

For modifications the B-52 would cost $94 million, and for R&D it would cost $133

Per aircraft type, the totals are -
• B-2A: $431 million.
• B-1B: $236 million.
• B-52: $227 million.

Again, the oldest is the cheapest; the newest (more complex, “stealth” model) is the most
expensive to support.

The 2012 data from the DoD appropriations process is merely one point in time for these
various aircraft, but a cursory review of several recent years shows the same pattern: the
stealth aircraft are more expensive to modify and upgrade than the aging relics.
Modern stealth aircraft are not cheaper to operate; they are far more expensive. While
precise numbers are unobtainable for the simple reason that the Air Force does not report
them, even to itself, the broad trends are clear.

F-35: Although no data is entered for the F-35 in the “Operational CPFH” spreadsheet,
other available data demonstrates some of the pitfalls. The 2010 F-35 Selected
Acquisition Report purports a $15,190 cost per flying hour for the F-35A
, not including
indirect costs. It is a cost just 15 percent above an allegedly commensurate cost shown
for the F-16C/D. Further DOD analysis purports a total operating and support cost for
the entire F-35 fleet of $915.7 billion.

These cost estimates are simply not credible. While the F-35 lacks a second engine or a
thrust diverter for in-air maneuvering, in other respects it is much more complex than the
F-22: multi-role design; STOVL, and several millions of additional lines of software code
are major issues. The F-35 will be lucky to stay under the F-22′s currently reported
$55,000 CPFH estimate.

In addition, while the assertion cannot be documented at this time, it is my understanding
that DoD has performed analysis that the F-35 cost per flying our will be far more than
the 15 percent increase over the F-16C/D that the Pentagon publicly asserts. Time will tell.

Drones: The spreadsheet presents CPFH data on the MQ-1B, MQ-9A, (Predator and
Reaper) and RQ-4A&B (Global Hawk) drones. The data is for the air vehicles only and
does not include the cost of most ground control operations
(or most probably other
contractor costs). The data shown are neither complete nor comparable to those listed for
manned aircraft. Beyond the unshown ground-based operating and other costs, an
additional factor to be considered for drones is the high loss rate they have demonstrated,
which would seem to make the procurement of new, replacement vehicles a factor to add
into operating and support costs.


We have no grand totals for the costs to keep the various types of Air Force aircraft in the inventory throughout their lifetime. Those presumably prodigious amounts are completely missing for most aircraft.

On the (conservative) assumption that total O&S costs for these aircraft are roughly twice the cost to acquire them, it is quite astonishing that so many in the Pentagon and Congress are so in the dark.

The costs to operate and support aircraft after deployment need to be routinely reported
both inside the Pentagon and to Congress, but before any Pentagon reports on this subject
are to be believed, they must be audited and then made complete and accurate by an
independent, competent authority such as the Government Accountability Office.

Winslow T. Wheeler, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is editor of “The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It,” and defense budget expert at the Center for Defense Information in Washington D.C.