How Much Does an F-35 Fighter Really Cost?

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The F-35 fighter.

There’s been a rash of recent reports that the U.S. military has wrestled the F-35’s cost growth to the mat. They come from some heavy hitters: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Air Force Lieut. General Christopher Bogdan, the F-35’s program manager, and the Pentagon’s latest Selected Acquisition Report.

That’s a good thing, if true: the $400 billion program is the most costly in the history of the world. Its price has jumped by nearly 70% since the Pentagon signed a deal to buy nearly 2,500 of the stealthy, single-engine, single-seat planes for the Air Force, Marines and Navy in 2001.

Halting the cost growth is critical. Rising prices mean fewer planes can be bought, which drives up the cost of those that actually are bought, which scares away potential customers, which drives up costs even more.

Winslow Wheeler isn’t convinced the costs have stopped rising.

In fact, Wheeler — a longtime military-cost analyst on Capitol Hill (where he toiled on both sides of the aisle) and the Government Accountability Office — says the plane’s $159 million purported per copy price in that latest Pentagon SAR — continues to rise, and is actually well north of that sum.

He promises to walk us as gently as he can through a forest of Pentagon data searching for the truth each day this week. We invite you to tag along.

As always, we invite contrary views. Feel free to comment at the end of his posts, or drop us a line at


Between development costs, maintenance over its service life, fuel, weapons, training and other such considerations, the price tag of the whole thing will top out at over a trillion (that trillion with a "T") dollars.

World War Two cost less - globally.


It must be clarified that all of the current F-35 'cost' control talk is also based on the assumption that 3,000+ F-35 will be ordered (at up to 220 jets per year production rate) and that 'Full rate production' for USAF orders will begin in FY17 or FY18, with around 70 jets ordered per year for the USAF alone!  (requiring more than twice the current Procurement budget!)

In this era of austere budget environments for customer nations (at just the beginning stages with a truly uncertain fiscal future, especially for the US); unfortunately, not likely.

More likely, it would be strategically calculating to project something more realistic in terms of an expected affordable USAF FRP order-rate in the range of around 25-30 jets per year, max.  God speed.


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