EXCLUSIVE: US Air Force combat fleet’s true operational costs revealed

How much does it cost the US Air Force to operate the manned combat fleet?

Winslow Wheeler, of the Center for Defense Information, has obtained actual operational cost per flight hour data over the past 10 years from his sources, and he graciously shared the database with The DEW Line. It is not classified information, but the data is not normally released by the USAF.

Writing about “costs” is always tricky. Numbers can vary dramatically depending on what gets included. In this case, we’re talking about operational costs. This includes operations costs, including fuel, parts and maintenance, as well as interim contractor support and manpower. It excludes modifications funded by procurement accounts. The total cost number is divided by the total number of flight hours flown by the fleet, and that is the operational cost per flight hour.

According to Wheeler’s sources, operational cost data is not an accurate measure of unmanned air vehicle (UAV) costs or fifth-generation fighter costs, so those are excluded from these tables.

We fed this data into the Google documents tool, and, with some assistance from Flightglobal data journalism consultant Kevin Anderson, produced a series of interactive graphics that you can browse below. The y-axis represents US dollars in constant 2010 values.

Among the surprises, B-2 costs appeared to rise dramatically to over $130,000 per hour after one of the bombers crashed on Guam in March 2008, the C-17A costs less to operate than a C-130H, the B-52H costs more than the B-1B, and the C-5B is more expensive to operate than the C-5A.




ISR & C2


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11 Responses to EXCLUSIVE: US Air Force combat fleet’s true operational costs revealed

  1. Obamanite 26 August, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    A B-2 engine fire isn’t horrific; its cost per flying hour is! Forget retiring the B-52H and B-1B once the NGB comes on-line; it’s the B-2 that needs to be retired ASAP! Thank god we only have a few of those flying around. Can you imagine if we’d acquired the full complement of 132? That fleet’s yearly operational budget alone would eclipse the entire defense budget of 99% of the world’s nations! I’m sure Wheeler’s sources didn’t want to disclose how much it really costs to fly the F-22 for fear of provoking an armed insurrection among U.S. taxpayers. Now that I think about it, maybe the F-22 isn’t grounded by an OBOGS issue after all. Not flying the F-22 may single-handedly solve our entire budget deficit problem! Okay, gotta go vomit now…

  2. Atomic Walrus 27 August, 2011 at 12:06 am #

    Just out of curiosity, what were the figures for 5th generation fighter and UAV operating costs, and what were Wheeler’s specific rationale for concluding that they were unrepresentative? I’m inclined to agree that the numbers are not likely to be useful at this point, but a skeptical voice nags me when this conclusion comes from a vocal F-22/F-35 critic like Wheeler. In addition, it looks like normalizing operating costs by flying hour is skewing the data. The spike in B-2 costs wouldn’t be surprising if the fleet wasn’t accruing many hours by being grounded while support overhead remained unchanged. It might be interesting to spin the data in another direction by normalizing operational cost by # of units in operation – that’d factor out the effect of fleet standdowns, etc.

  3. Terence R. 27 August, 2011 at 7:03 am #

    Good stuff but where is the KC-135 fleet?

  4. Neil 27 August, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    Why is the C5 cost, triple any other.

  5. BDF 28 August, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    The F-22 isn’t on these charts because it wasn’t in service 10 years ago. These charts are looking back at the 10 year trend for fleet operating costs. F-22 operating costs have been published by the USAF; there’s no conspiracy here.

  6. Joe K. 29 August, 2011 at 1:20 am #

    The C5s have got to go. Their systems are just too antiquated for today expectation of reliability. It takes about 24hours to prepare a C5 for a mission. That means before one takes off, the entire aircrew needs 24 hours just to prep the plane. It is just unacceptable for today’s world. Yet, the fleet has less than 60 pct mission capability. That means if you need a C5, you need at least 24 hours head start, and then, there is a 40pct chance it can’t fly. The only reason the C5s are still flying is due to lobbying by Lockheed Martin.

  7. Lightndattic 29 August, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    Joe, The AMP/C-5M program addresses those issues. The real power keeping the older A models in service are the congressmen and women with bases in their districts currently flying them.

  8. Tim D-T 30 August, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Buy more C-17s! What a bargain!

  9. Michael Wm. Denis 6 September, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    Key statement, “Writing about “costs” is always tricky. Numbers can vary dramatically depending on what gets included.”

    Excluding modifications from the acquisition budget is an inaccurate approach. Airlines would love to exclude the costs of modifications like ADs, SBs, EOs (IFE, WiFi, Live TV, Winglets, etc…) and say their CASM / Unit Cost or Cost per Blk Hr was flat.

    I’d also suspect that AFMC Working Capital Fund costs were also excluded – which means the real cost of logistics and heavy maintenance are not accountied for.

    Unfortuntately for us in the real world, accounting has standards (e.g., FASB, SEC 404, AICPA Auditing & Accounting for Airlines, …).

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