The Congressional Budget Office released a new report recently that indicated that America’s forthcoming air-superiority fighter, currently known only as the Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) program, could cost as much as $300 million per air frame. As a result, headlines painting the program as yet another example of rampant and unchecked government spending have flooded the media. However, a closer look at these cost projections, along with a bit of perspective granted by looking into previous programs, suggest that the cost-frenzy associated with the development of this new aircraft may be a bit premature.
First, let’s assume that this estimate is based on hard data culled from a program that’s already far enough along in its development to offer them (which the PCA almost certainly is not). For the sake of argument, we’ll assume the first batch order of the PCA will indeed cost $300 million per aircraft — a tally based on the cost of research and development and the low volume of initial orders — that would indeed make it more than three times more expensive than the F-35 currently costs per plane, as numerous media outlets have reported. However, that comparison is unfair and unrealistic.
To date, the F-35 has been in production since 2007 — making its 2018 price tag of under $90 million per aircraft a representation of multiple previous purchases that have offset the cost of developing new production practices and the cost of technology development that went into the aircraft. In fact, the first F-35As to roll out of Lockheed Martin assembly plants actually rang in at $297 million a piece — practically nailing the Congressional report’s “doomsday” cost prediction for a new fighter platform. The F-22, it’s worth noting, came in at around $250 million per plane right up until it was canceled.
Of course, the F-35 isn’t a model program — and after years of cost overruns and delays, the advanced fighter tends to get beat up in the media (including by this outlet) — but that’s par for the course for the most expensive weapons system in history. Until the F-35 starts proving itself in combat, all there is to do is analyze what it’s done thus far. With the F-35 entering into combat operations in recent months, there’s a chance the fighter will prove it was worth the cost and the wait — but it won’t alleviate America’s need for a new air superiority fighter.
That cost estimate is actually based on a wide array of presumptions — many of which are sound, but remain presumptions nonetheless. A sizeable portion of that cost is based on the idea that new technology will need to be developed to ensure the highest possible capability out of this new fighter, but chances are good that America’s experience in developing stealth aircraft, especially the lessons learned through the development of the F-22 and F-35, could result in a reduced initial R&d expense as compared to previous programs.
Although the F-35 was first touted as an all-purpose wonder-plane, expectations have been tempered in the years since it first started flying. A stealthy sniper, the F-35 is a formidable air-to-air presence, but it lacks the speed or maneuverability that might be required in a fight against other stealthy, but more squirrelly jets like China’s J-20. The F-22, which is widely considered to be the superior dogfighter, had its production run cut at fewer than 200 aircraft, and America’s fastest intercept fighter, the F-15, isn’t getting any younger. America needs an air superiority fighter that can go toe-to-toe with the best fighters that will take to the sky in the decades to come, and the F-35 simply isn’t the right tool for that job.
The F-35 will serve as a suitable replacement for multi-role aircraft like the Navy’s F/A-18s and the Air Force‘s F-16s, but the U.S. military will need something else to step in for its two aerial prize fighters, the F-22 and F-15. The PCA program promises to be that jet — and no one should be frightened off by high initial production costs. Other more pressing costs that warrant further analysis would include the cost to operate the jets once they’ve been delivered. As the Pentagon has learned with the F-35, even cutting unit costs doesn’t help much when the force can’t afford to put the planes in the air. Those costs will be nearly impossible to predict until some version of the PCA manifests for testing.
“The PCA aircraft would probably have a greater range and payload, as well as improved stealth and sensor capabilities, than today’s F-22; those characteristics would help it operate the high-end air defenses that DoD believes China, Russia, and other potential adversaries may have in the future,” the Congressional report reads.