The Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II is the US military’s current top-of-the-line fighter aircraft, but its history of cost overruns and technical issues has made it a poster child for government waste. And that may be nothing compared to the next generation of air combat technology. At a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall claims the so-called Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) aircraft could cost hundreds of millions each, reports DefenseNews.
Military hardware is always vastly more expensive than you’d think. Long-time government contractors like Lockheed-Martin and Northrop Grumman have become adept at winning low-bid contracts that entitle them to bill the government for cost overruns. Northrop’s B-2 Spirit stealth bomber was pitched at a cost of about $500 million each, but the final price tag as of the late 90s was closer to $2 billion. The F-22, which will be replaced by the NGAD, was initially supposed to cost about $80 million, but the fly-away cost eventually soared to more than $130 million, and it’s around $600 million when parts and support are included. The F-35 can run upward of $130 million, depending on the service branch variant.
That puts the statement by Secretary Kendall in a different context. The NGAD program will eventually lead to the production of a sixth-generation fighter, but we’re easily a decade away from seeing a finished model take to the skies (military commanders claim a prototype has already flown). That leaves a lot of time for design changes and engineering challenges to inflate the cost. We may even be looking at total costs in the same range as the Spirit bomber, of which the US only bought 21. The demand for an air superiority fighter is necessarily much greater — the military purchased almost 200 F-22s.
There’s no doubt the NGAD will be a fabulously expensive airplane, but there’s still some hope the total cost of the program won’t be as obscene as many fear. Allegedly, the program is designed to hold down costs more than past contracts, stressing the use of modular components and additional funding controls to keep maintenance and repair costs lower.
Kendall also noted the NGAD will be accompanied by smaller, less expensive combat aircraft. He envisions a small wing of remotely piloted drones flying along with each NGAD. But if the crewed jet is going to cost hundreds of millions (at least) each of its drone wingmen could end up costing as much as the early F-22 airframes.
Until the NGAD arrives, the US will continue flying the F-22. Hopefully its supply holds out — Lockheed-Martin recently told the government that restarting the F-22 production line would boost the price to $206–$216 million per aircraft. That’s NGAD money!