With every improvement Lockheed Martin makes to its proven, affordable F-16 fighter, the rationale for the U.S. spending $110 million per copy on stealthy F-35 fighters takes a hit. Still, the Air Force continues to mortgage its future on its obsession with buying a huge fleet of those new F-35s.
Hot on the heels of Emirates’ F-16E model, which has the electronically scanned radar and extended range of an F-35, there’s the planned Indian F-16, which reportedly will feature “super-cruise,” the ability to fly faster than Mach 1 without a gas-guzzling afterburner. That’s a capability most often associated with the
$130 $300-million F-22 Raptor. Now you can have it for around half a fifth the cost.
Don’t count on this changing the Air Force’s mind about F-22s or F-35s. The service wants to put shiny new iron on the tarmac, and it would go out of business before it would do otherwise.
Update, 1:41 EST:
Bob Cox, a reporter on the aerospace beat, tells me that the F-16′s supercruise capability is blown WAY out of proportion:
Lockheed tells me: technical definition of super cruise is sustained supersonic speed without use of an afterburner. F-22 can, apparently, do it. An F-16, clean, no weapons, (probably pointed down?) may be able exceed Mach 1 but probably not for sustained burst. In combat ops it would have to turn on the burner and burn up the gas in a hurry. They tell me an over-eager pilot’s words were swallowed whole by over-eager Indian press! But I’m sure they like the publicity.
Update, 2:42 EST:
Lockheed rep John Kent wrote in to confirm Cox’s claim that the super-cruise thing is all Indian media hype. And he added this intended correction:
The JSF Program Office’s esimated unit recurring flyaway cost for the F-35 is about $47 million for the conventional takeoff and landing variant, and about $60 million for the short takeoff/vertical landing variant and the carrier variant. Those figures are expressed in 2002 dollars — the fiscal year in which the F-35 development contract was awarded. The $110 million figure is not correct.
I beg to differ. And so does Cox’s paper, The Fort Worth Star Telegram:
Pentagon planners now estimate the total cost of purchasing 2,458 planes for the Air Force, Navy and Marines at $299.8 billion, a figure that covers all anticipated costs from the beginning of the program in October 2001 through the end of the program. That figure is 43 percent higher than the original $209.4 billion estimate.
So the per-unit cost, including development, would be closer to $125 million. I said $110 million because the Air Force’s F-35A model is actually slightly cheaper than the Navy and Marine versions.