The High and Escalating Cost of Warplanes

A piece I wrote for the Peace Action network on July 13, 2009 points up the sharp cost escalation of warplanes. It is timely, in a sense, to reissue that communication, since the Obama White House will not cut a single plane in the $487 billion, ten-year projected Pentagon budget cuts announced in January.

The fact sheet on the F-22 “Raptor” Fighter shows that the per unit cost increased from $148.8 million in early 1992 to $350.8 million in late 2008. This substantial increase in the cost of a very sophisticate but fragile jet fighter is not unusual, as the cost of military fighter planes and bombers has historically wildly escalated. In her book, The Baroque Arsenal, the defense analyst, Mary Kaldor, writes that between the Second World War and 1980, the cost of bombers increased 200 times and fighter planes, 100 times.

The B-1B bomber had a per unit cost estimate of $30 million in 1972 but the per unit cost was about nine times higher in 1987. When first proposed late in the Reagan administration, the estimated cost of a 132-plane B-2 Stealth bomber wing was equaled by the coat of a 75-plane wing a few years later in 1991.

Not only is the F-22 a costly plane to build, but according to a July 10, 2009 Washington Post article, it requires 30 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight, or $44,000 for every hour of flight. Ever since jet fighters began to be crammed with electronics — a process Mary Kaldor called “positively rococo in their elaborate and frivolous features” — failures requiring maintenance work have been a common occurrence. Kaldor said the time between failures varied from 12 minutes for the F-111D to 18 minutes for the F-14A and F-45 fighters. In comparison, the A-10 general-attack aircraft was a maintenance marvel, as it could commonly fly for 72 minutes without a failure requiring maintenance work.

At the turn of this century, when the F-22 passed from drawing board and prototype to actual production, analysts were generally agreed that the U.S. did not need to build a single new fighter, as it would have jet fighter superiority until at least 2020. So when the argument is made that the 187 F-22s are sufficient, the honest answer is that we didn’t need to build a single one.

Parts for the F-22 are made in 44 states, meaning that it is difficult to curtail the F-22 program due to the job-loss argument. To those who say we can build more F-35 Joint Strike fighters to offset losses from production curtailment of the more trouble-plagued F-22, the reply should be that we didn’t need the F-35 either.

After I wrote the article for the Peace Action network, it was revealed by the Pentagon that fuel for U.S.warplanes and for other military uses, carries an amazing price tag. Based on the 2009 dollar, the “:fully burdened” cost of a gallon of gasoline used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan was $400: this includes the cost of shipping, the loss of fuel when supply conveys are ambushed and the voracious consumption of fuel by military vehicles and combat aircraft.

The F-16 jet fighter and the B-52 bomber illustrate this voracious consumption. The F-16 uses in less than an hour as much fuel as the average motorist uses in two years, but this rate of consumption pales in comparison to the B-52. According to the Book, At the Abyss, written by Thomas C. Reed, a former Secretary of the Air Force, an eight-engine B-52 at full-throttle uses a ton of fuel every four minutes. At a fully burdened cost of $400 a gallon, the one-hour fuel cost of a B-52 would be $1,440,000. Some B-52s have been used in bombing runs in Afghanistan.

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