The F-35 is a fighter-bomber aircraft that will be used by three of the four branches of the armed forces. The last time the Air Force, Navy and Marines had the same jet fighter was back in the 1960s when they all adopted the F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber.

A good way to determine just how bad defense cost overruns are is to compare the relative cost of the F-35 with the F-4.

Of course there are a number of determining factors. One is the fact that inflation has distorted prices somewhat since the mid 1960s. Another is that real GDP has grown significantly in that time. The final thing to realise is that technology since then has improved markedly, thus granting “more bang for the buck” so to speak. So let’s play with these adjustments:

• F-4E Phantom II “flyaway cost” in 1965 was $2.4 million (wikipedia source)
• Nominal GDP in 1965 Q4 was $747.5 Billion. (St Louis Fed source)
• The cost of a single F-4E Phantom II thus represented approximately 0.00032% of GDP.
• Adjusted for inflation, the cost of a single F-4E Phantom II in 2010 dollars is approximately $16.4 million (inflation calculator)
• F-35A Lightning II “flyaway cost” in 2011 is $122 million (wikipedia source)
• Nominal GDP in 2011 Q2 was $15,012.8 Billion (St Louis Fed source)
• The cost of a single F-35A Lightning II thus represents approximately 0.00081% of GDP.
• The cost of 0.00032% of GDP in 2011 Q2 was $48 million.
• The F-35A is, in dollar figures, 644% the value of a F-4E.
• The F-35A is, in percentage of GDP, 154% the value of a F-4E

So naturally the question arises: is one F-35A better than 2.8 aircraft that could’ve been built at lower cost but with far better technology that was ever available for the F-4? Or, better still, is one F-35A better than 7.4 of these aircraft?

The idea I’m trying to promote here is not a return to building F-4s, nor whether it would be better to build increasingly obsolete F-18s, F-16s or F-15s instead. Rather I’m trying to point out that a cheaper alternative could’ve been built than the F-35, and that this theoretical alternative would’ve replaced the F-18s, F-16s or F-15s.

This theoretical aircraft would not cost $122 million (like the F-35A), but be between $16.4m – $48m. While the chances are that this theoretical aircraft would be inferior in some ways to the F-35, it would still be superior to the aircraft it replaces and probably still be one of the best aircraft around.

Maybe the Pentagon should focus its attention upon cost, and let the developers and engineers work within that framework.

EDIT: Since the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet currently costs $55 million each, maybe it should replace all the obsolete fighter-bombers currently in service in the Air Force, Navy and Marines?


by One Salient Oversight

Category: Think Tank, War/Defense

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

11 Responses to “US Defense Cost Overruns: F-35 vs F4”

  1. Moss says:

    The Military Industrial complex is the most unproductive use of taxpayer money that the earth has ever known. Spending other peoples money with absolutely no accountability is a hallmark of the Pentagon.

  2. Fatty_Arbuckle says:

    A couple quick points:

    - The F-4 was one plane that (I think) one military branch procured & the others ended up buying. The F-35 is more like three different planes each trying to please different sets of people during development.

    - Wiki says they built 5,195 F-4 Phantom IIs. It remains to be seen how many F-35s will be made. As with most recent aircraft programs, the orders tend to decrease, spreading the development costs over fewer planes & inflating the unit cost.

    - Totally IMO: If we really need to, we should just dust off the drawings & tooling for the A-10 Warthog, and start banging out more of those if needed. It was cheap, rugged, & effective.

  3. Sechel says:

    Americans(military spending being a prime example) tend to over-engineer things and ignore common sense cost effective solutions. There’s an old story I first heard while watching sixty minutes. The IAF had long expressed interest in the american F-4 phantom, but when they got it insisted on making basic modificaitons, one being installing a rear view mirror so they could enemy planes approaching from behind.

  4. wunsacon says:

    There’s no point investing in new manned weapon systems at all. Manned aircraft are quickly becoming horribly obsolete.

  5. Greg0658 says:

    “tend to over-engineer things” .. a programs survival method, involve as many constituents as possible .. and its a jobs program* with a dose of R&D* … (a solid, all out, world war will fix that)

    * what our savings offered China in just about everything in butter

  6. Greg0658 says:

    wunsacon @9:22am .. not gonna let that stand without adding – land/water based repeater stations

  7. Greg0658 says:

    oh – did you folks here the Anonymous Bug Club is gonna shut you traders off @30 minutes prior to close today?
    (not that I have 1st hand knowledge – I heard it on the MSM)

  8. MikeDonnelly says:

    We’ve had 3 wars since the F-22 has been in production and available to use. No F-22 have been used in any of these wars. Perhaps the better adjustment to account for cost is not percentage of GDP, but rather how many enemy aircraft per F4 were shot down vs. how many enemy aircraft per F-22 or F-35 and you will quickly realize what a waste these planes represent.

    Someone has to realize the replacement for the F-18 is already here, it’s called the unmanned drone. Welcome to the 21st century.

  9. Sechel says:

    Something else to keep in mind.
    Many of these planes were initially planned long ago when the Soviet’s were our threat. Military thinkers had a difficult time adjusting to the new realities of wars in Iraq,Afghanistan etc and many of our weapons were not tailored for these threats. It’s only now with the Chinese becoming the new Soviets can we even begin to justify 100 million dollar planes again. The drones we hear about are not of the caliber needed for a high quality enemey like the Chinese. Drones are what we use for reconnaisance or going after Al Qaeda or Taliban targets.

  10. Jojo says:

    So naturally the question arises: is one F-35A better than 2.8 aircraft that could’ve been built at lower cost but with far better technology that was ever available for the F-4? Or, better still, is one F-35A better than 7.4 of these aircraft?
    But the F-35 looks way cool!

  11. DeDude says:

    Does any of the enemies that we might fight with these aircrafts have the kind of planes that could outdo our current planes? War with China and Russia would be a nuclear missile Armageddon, not done with fighter planes. It seems to me that any current potential enemies (that would not escalate into nuclear war), are way behind anything we have today, so why are we wasting our money on these planes.