What does the most expensive in aviation mean?
The answer to this question is not simple. In the last one hundred years a countless number of military planes have been developed and each of them required plenty of money, work and sometimes even people’s live. Also, it is impossible to compare older aircraft to modern ones because of the different technology, years of production and different national economies in the countries where they were created. All those aspects demand simplification and it’s necessary to assume that modern military aircraft are the most advanced and the most expensive in history.
The cost of one military aircraft depends on the way of calculating. The easiest is the “flyaway cost”, which is how much taxpayers have to spend money to piece together each plane in a factory. A second way is similar to the one mentioned before, but includes the cost of development program divided by the number of aircraft developed. So it depends on how many planes are or will be built in the future. The last method of calculation is more complex. It consists of flyaway and development costs. It also comprises maintenance costs during its lifespan. Fuel, spare parts, inspections, repairs and everything else connected with an aircraft is calculated, so obviously it adds up to the highest cost.
Fighter jet, bomber or transport aircraft – Which of them is the most expensive?
In this comparison the winner is in every possible category the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit. Each American strategic bomber costs an average of $2.1bilion. The total program cost is almost $45 billion and was the subject of public controversy in the late 90s. The American government had ordered only 21 of them and the production was ended because they were too expensive and there was no need for more.
Despite such a big cost, the program was successful. Thanks to it, the stealth technology, flying wing shape with high aerodynamic efficiency and large payload were developed. Moreover advanced and complex avionic, radars and systems became a background for the next generation of aircraft. The fifth generation fighters are based on those technologies and most likely this will be the future of the aerial warfare.
The Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor is the winner in the fighter category. The first place was assured by the cost of around $377 million per jet. Similarly like the B-2 Spirit, extremely expensive was the development program, almost $67 billion, and a small number of manufactured aircraft, only 195. Another drawback is the maintenance cost and lack of combat missions nowadays for such an advanced fighter. All those aspects contributed to the closure of production in December 2011 and manufacturing was frozen, which means that it can be resumed at war time by the Lockheed Martin. But in the case of the B-2 Spirit the overall cost depends on the point of view. The F-22 is the first and the only fifth generation fighter in service. Moreover it is the most advanced aircraft in the world with sophisticated avionic and the stealth technology. Also the knowledge and technologies invented during the development program allows to create a better and cheaper Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II which is scheduled for introduction after 2016. As we already wrote in an recent article:
[…]F-35 Lightning II [is], the most expensive defense project in history. The wildly over budget Joint Strike Fighter project will cost around USD 382 billion after several cuts. That’s near the 2011 GDP of South Africa (USD 408 billion) and above Thailands GDP (USD 345 billion).
The third most expensive aircraft is the C 17 Globemaster III, an American military transport plane. The Flyaway cost is an average of $225 million per unit, and it’s hard to say how high the overall cost for each one will be, because they are still in production. The whole number of aircraft will be around 280 and it is almost sure, that there won’t be a more expensive transport military plane. The C17 Globemaster III is in service not only with the U.S. Air Force, but also with six international customers. That means the aircraft is worth the money which has been spend on it. The plane is one of the best tactical airlifter, with long range and possibility to perform medical evacuation, strategic airlift and airdrop missions. Moreover amazing payload capability and ability to operate from unpaved and one kilometer long runways make him really outstanding military aircraft.
The future of military aviation
The future will belong to more advanced and multirole aircraft, but maybe a little bit cheaper. Because of rapidly increasing costs of the new military aircraft, governments and military officers have decided to reduce many types of military airplanes and replace them with only a few extremely multirole aircraft. This will reduce the overall cost of the Aerial warfare, but the development programs will be more advanced and probably amazingly expensive. So the cost of each airplane will depend on how many of them will be manufactured.
Additional Articles and Resources:
- Time Magazine’s list of the top 10 most expensive military planes.
- B-2 Spirit overview by the Federation of American Scientists.
- A huge C-17 Globemaster III takes off and lands on an unpaved runway. Great video!