Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II generates lots of ugly headlines.
Some reports focus on the type’s dozens of persistent deficiencies, such as danger to the fifth-generation fighter from lightning strikes and problems sustaining supersonic flight without damaging its stealth coating.
Other articles focus on the aircraft’s operating expense. The cheapest of the three Joint Strike Fighter variants, the conventional take-off and landing variant F-35A, costs a mere $44,000 per flight hour.
When it comes to operating expense, however, think tank the Mitchell Institute argues that flight-hour costs are a red herring. A better way to judge F-35 expenses is by cost-per-effect. In other words, how much does it cost an F-35 to destroy a target?
The think tank argues in a new paper that fifth-generation aircraft like the F-35, Lockheed F-22 Raptor and developmental Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber deliver more bang for the buck than current measurement systems show. The paper, written by Mitchell Institute dean David Deptula and executive director Douglas Birkey, argues that the US Air Force should increase its proportion of stealthy aircraft on a cost-per-effect basis.
The think tank makes its point in a variety of ways, including showing that during the Gulf War far fewer Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft were needed, versus conventional types, to destroy targets in Iraq.
“On the first night of Operation Desert Storm, 20 F-117s struck 28 separate targets. Their stealth design gave them the ability to penetrate enemy air defences without the need to rely on a large number of escort aircraft to provide defensive support,” says the paper. “Moreover, precision strike technology allowed the F-117s to hit their targets with great lethality – they used one or two bombs per target.”
By comparison, the first non-stealth attack group required 41 aircraft to drop eight bombs on a single target, the Mitchell Institute says. Additionally, those conventional aircraft needed a lot of help.
“These eight non-stealth strike assets required multiple escort aircraft to jam hostile air defence radars, suppress surface-to-air missile threats and counter enemy fighters,” the paper says. “So, while each legacy, non-stealth strike aircraft was less expensive than a stealth F-117 from a unit cost perspective, the fact that it took so many of them and a large package of supporting aircraft to accomplish a single task realised exceedingly high operational costs.”
The Mitchell Institute further notes that more aircraft means more MRO and logistics support, which also drives up cost.
The think tank says the large upfront expense to buy B-21 stealth bombers – estimated to cost $564 million per aircraft in 2016 dollars – is also worthwhile. That aircraft’s payload capacity is classified, but the paper notes the value of its predecessor, the Boeing B-1B.
“It would require 12 fighters like the [Lockheed] F-16 or [Boeing] F/A-18 to carry the same 24 2,000lb [907kg] GBU-31 JDAMs that can be delivered by a single B-1B bomber sortie,” says the Mitchell Institute.
Furthermore, because B-21s will fly long ranges and use low-observable technology to penetrate China’s or Russia’s air defences, the stealth bomber has further cost-per-effect benefits.