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The High-Cost of High-Price Aircraft
John Q. Bolton
No high‐cost aircraft demonstrated superior performance in all, or even most, measures, and no low‐cost aircraft was generally inferior.
-GAO, “Desert Storm-Evaluation of the Air Campaign”
As the Army seeks to adjust for the future it faces the twin challenges of hybrid threats and reduced budgets described in the Army Operating Concept. During this period, the Army must carefully examine its aviation component based on not only cost, but also future capabilities. Army Aviation’s vision of the future aircraft is Future Vertical Lift (FVL). Initial FVL concepts envisioned several aircraft with common airframes, parts, and avionics. Given the challenges described above, it is wise to consider some historical examples of aircraft development in order to provide insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the FVL program.
The primary consideration is the American military’s tendency to drift its focus toward high-cost, high-tech wonder weapons designed to accomplish many missions, rather than more measured approaches like simpler, single-mission designs. History shows American military designs, while technologically impressive, have often produced costly, over-hyped weapons that failed to meet basic expectations. These failures necessitated expensive post-production modifications, which frequently extended weapons procurement times into decades-long ordeals. Examples of this include the F-111 and the F-35 aircraft, as well as Army programs such as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV), the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), and the Future Combat System. All of these examples demonstrate two pejorative trends in American military design: an unbalanced reliance on technology and a desire to create a one-size-fits-all solution.
These trends are not necessarily exclusive to aircraft design, but the high cost associated with producing and operating aircraft exacerbate the potential for error. A prejudice toward one-size-fits-all technologically advanced solutions reflects American faith in technology’s ability to shape the world as we see fit. All too often however, this same faith makes America fail “to understand the enemy of the day” and consequently design aircraft based on our parochial priorities rather than what reality dictates. 
Problems with Multi-Role Aircraft
Multi-role aircraft (MRA) exemplify the pejorative characteristics of American Military equipment design by demonstrating a high cost to capability ratio and overall low performance of key missions. They tend to be larger than necessary, overly complex, and costly. In short, like the Army’s UCP, when you try to do everything well, you end up doing many things poorly. The result is wasted time, effort, and money attempting to achieve “does it all” miracles. Additionally, multi-role, high-tech aircraft invariably cost more than the aircraft they replace. Despite projections of low-cost and savings due to technological advances, MRA/Joint aircraft nearly always cost more, do less, and result in fewer aircraft procured than originally forecasted. The result is often “expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants” that perform better only in test-like circumstances, both unlike and unrepresentative of combat environments.
The F-35 represents the contemporary iteration of this process. Critics charge the F-35 is overly expensive and cannot supplant the A-10 in the Close Air Support (CAS) role. Supporters contend that the F-35 is not a replacement for the A-10, but can perform many missions including Interdiction against high-end Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADs) and air-to-air combat. What these supporters fail to understand is that the combination of these related missions degrades performance in both, regardless of how much impressive technology is bundled onto the aircraft.
While current attention focuses on reported poor performance and expense of the F-35, it is only the most recent iteration of issues with MRA. During the 1960s, the Department of Defense (DoD) pressed the Air Force and Navy into a joint aircraft program, the F-111 Aardvark. Though the F-111 evolved from Secretary McNamara’s push for jointness and cost-savings, it evoked all the negative features inherent of MRA. Designed to perform air superiority, CAS, all weather attack, nuclear attack, and high-speed intercept, while being aircraft carrier-capable, the F-111 weighed in at over 70,000lbs—twice a WWII B-17. On paper, the F-111 incorporated emerging technology such as all-weather intercept and bombing radars as well as variable-sweep wings. Combined with advanced cockpit avionics these technologies would create a large flight envelope for the F-111 in order to support its large range of missions. In reality, however, the F-111 was a hodgepodge of questionable technology and competing engineering demands.
Figure 1. F-111
As a joint aircraft, the F-111 had to meet both Air Force and Navy requirements. Like the concepts behind the F-35, this should have saved money, if not during design and testing, then at least in joint production. However, designing an aircraft for multiple missions meant incorporating maneuverability, bombing, and carrier landing capability into a single airframe. Every capability simply added weight to the aircraft, reducing its ability to perform other missions while also increasing complexity. This inevitably created a Frankenstein, capable of doing much, but nothing particularly well. Exacerbating the F-111’s reliance on new technologies was the absence of a competitive fly-off. Instead, computer modeling was deemed sufficient to make design and production decisions.
The new, high-tech systems designed to make the F-111 all-weather and night-capable, as well as cheaper and more reliable, had the opposite effect. Advanced avionics “failed more often than predicted, and the time and costs to repair their failures were far greater than expected.” Radar bombing, which promised incredible accuracy, proved four times as inaccurate over Vietnam as in training, echoing the experience of WWII bomber crews. By 1979, the average maintenance per flight was 23x times higher than forecasts and failure rates were so high that cannibalizing parts between aircraft was commonplace. Rather than improve the aircraft’s effectiveness unproven technology and designing for multiple missions created an expensive, ineffective aircraft.
Increasing Complexity Drives up Cost
Not only did the multi-role F-111 prove less capable than advertised at its wide array of missions, its cost was grossly higher than the aircraft it replaced. As a result, fewer aircraft were procured, particularly after the Navy dropped out of the F-111 program in 1968. Cost and complexity quickly devolved into a pernicious loop: Technologically advanced aircraft escalated costs, reducing the number of aircraft eventually produced; this increased the mission set for each aircraft, which required further improvements, which made each new aircraft more expensive. This cycle has become endemic in American aircraft since the 1960s. Figure 2 highlights this trend in 2014 dollars.
Figure 2. USAF Aircraft Deliveries & Unit Cost (2014 Dollars)
Since WWII, every new American tactical aircraft cost more, causing a corresponding drop in the total number of aircraft procured. Technology certainly plays a part—an F-22 is leagues ahead of a P-51 or F-86 in terms of capability in its particular mission—but quantity is an important metric as well. If the Air Force cannot produce enough aircraft to create an effectively trained and deployable force, then the cost is not worth it. Furthermore, quantity (mass) can create its own advantage. Increasing cost and decreasing quantity create uncertainty for manufacturers, which “increases labor costs and reduces the incentive to invest in processes that could reduce costs.”
The result is that, in constant dollars, by 1980 an average flight hour cost 80x its 1950 equivalent. For example, despite over-hyped claims of the effectiveness of American air power in the Gulf War, in terms of CAS, “it turns out that a Stuka was quite as capable of knocking out a WWII tank as an A-10 Warthog is of doing the same to [one today]. Similarly, a WWII P-47 did not take more sorties to bring down a bridge or hit a tank than an F-16 did six and a half decades later [in Iraq].” The cost of modern aircraft is, of course, many orders of magnitude higher than a P-47.
Figure 3. USAF Aircraft Unit & Marginal Cost (2014 Dollars)
Aircraft cost must be measured against its capability and quantity produced. Figure 3 demonstrates the striking increases in cost of American aircraft. Particularly significant is the marginal cost of each aircraft over its predecessor. With only two exceptions, the A-10 and F-16, marginal costs exceeded 200%. This is an unpleasant fact for MRA. Ironically, these cost increases came with the commensurate loss of quantity of aircraft delivered (due to cost) and the relatively poor performance of MRA compared to single-mission aircraft.
Conversely, examples abound of aircraft designed for a specific mission that ended-up performing many missions well. The P-51 Mustang dominated the skies of Europe during WWII as a fighter, fighter-bomber, and reconnaissance aircraft, and later performed CAS in Korea more effectively than USAF jets. Developed in the 1970s, F-16 and A-10 are both “pure expressions of function,” designed to perform a specific mission very well. Unlike most aircraft procurement programs before or since, both the F-16 and A-10 were designed with mission-based performance, not numerical capability in mind. Importantly, both aircraft went through a competitive fly-off, which allowed real-world evaluation of their capabilities.
A fly-off also helps detract from arbitrary design requirements. Prior to the F-16, aircraft were generally designed to meet specific requirements like Mach number, G-load, etc. However, arbitrary targets often create design trade-offs often unrelated to realistic combat scenarios. For example, the F-15 preliminary design requirements dictated a top speed in excess of Mach 2.0, simply to match the MiG-25, not based on real-world experience in air-to-air combat, which overwhelmingly occurred at sub-sonic airspeeds. This meant the F-15 required different engines, including exotic materials and other additions, to meet a design goal not necessarily related to mission performance.
Additionally, unlike the F-111 and F-35, the A-10 and F-16 are single-service aircraft. In the same manner as adding missions, incorporating multi-service requirements lowers effectiveness. This seems counterintuitive, as combining efforts should reduce cost. However, a 2013 RAND report revealed exactly the opposite: “the need to integrate multiple service requirements in a single design increases the complexity of joint programs and potentially leads to higher-than-average cost growth [over 30% on average] that could reduce or even negate potential savings… The difficulty of reconciling diverse service requirements in a common design is a major factor in joint cost outcomes.” The RAND report also highlighted risks, aside from costs, associated with MRA aircraft: “Joint aircraft programs could potentially increase operational and strategic risk… Having a variety of fighter platform types across service inventories provides a hedge against design flaws and maintenance and safety issues that could potentially cause fleet-wide stand-downs.” The authors then harshly criticized the entire concept behind joint aircraft programs, concluding, “Informed by these findings, we recommend that, unless the participating services have identical, stable requirements, DoD avoid future joint fighter and other complex joint aircraft programs.”
Figure 4. Select Aircraft Hourly Cost (Average FY 11-14)
The combination of design purity, competitive fly-offs, and strict adherence to function created two of the most-capable Air Force platforms still flying 40 years later in a variety of roles at low cost (Figure 4). Though the A-10 was never an Air Force darling—it evolved largely out of interservice rivalries to perform a mission dismissed in USAF doctrine—it remains unchallenged in the realm of fixed-wing CAS. During Desert Storm, despite initial Air Force hesitancy to deploy the A-10, the aircraft performed Interdiction, Combat Search and Rescue, and CAS throughout the campaign. In fact, the A-10 was responsible for the vast majority of tank kills and flew the second-most number of effective sorties, behind the F-16. It is also worth noting that, despite Air Force and media coverage to the contrary, 92% of the ordnance dropped in Desert Storm was unguided “dumb” bombs. However, the 8% of “smart” bombs amounted to nearly 40% of the overall cost of dropped ordnance.
A 1997 GAO study of Gulf War air power sharply criticized the Air Force’s predilection toward high-tech, high-cost weapons systems. The GAO found “no clear link between the cost of either aircraft or weapon systems and their performance in Desert Storm. Neither relatively high-cost nor low-cost air-to-ground aircraft demonstrated consistently superior performance across a range of measures such as sortie rate, survivability, amount of munitions delivered, and participation in successful target outcomes.” The report concluded: “The evidence from Desert Storm points to the usefulness of single-role aircraft in their respective missions and the usefulness of multirole aircraft most predominantly in the air-to-ground mission.”
Lessons for Army Aviation
So, if MRA are less capable and more expensive, what are the lessons for Army aviation? Foremost is this: individual and organizational competence remains paramount to creating effectiveness. Analysis of the Gulf War as well as the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960s and 70s points to organization competence and skill as the primacy indicators of military success. Technology aids, but may only serve as a wedge between skilled and unskilled militaries. The increasing prevalence of cheaper technology only serves to increase the importance of skill as “combat outcomes for comparably skilled opponents may be little changed by new weaponry.” Additionally, even if our potential adversaries choose to employ peer-type high-tech weaponry, having just a few expensive platforms on-hand creates four problems.
First, a lack of quantity means fewer missions flown. Training is largely a function of quantity of experience. If pilots cannot get hours to develop skills and, more importantly, units cannot train to collective proficiency, technology will not fill the gap. This is particularly important for air-ground integration.
Second, history shows simply having a high-tech weapon does not guarantee victory. For example, when the Allies began the Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany in 1942, it became obvious that despite years of focus on strategic bombing, technology like the Norden Bombsight and the B-1y proved ineffective against German air defenses. From 1943 through spring 1944, American bombers suffered 10% casualties on a near-daily basis loss rates; it was not until 1944 and the deployment of long-range fighters that the air war over Germany was won. Regardless of American valor, poor doctrine and false hope in technology failed when they met the reality of a dynamic, thinking opponent and the friction inherent in warfare.
Third, the vast rise in aircraft cost occurred with a simultaneous decrease in the price of technology, which caused massive diffusion of capability. A common expression is that a cell phone has more computing power than the Apollo Program. Technology may be compromised, as the recent hacking incidents of Sony and the federal government illustrate. The result of this technological diffusion is simple: the American Military cannot rely on simple technological superiority to guarantee a military advantage. Technology can only aid, not supplant, military competence; but rising aircraft costs ultimately mean fewer aircraft, placing even more reliance on the supposed edge provided by technology. Regardless of individual superiority, fewer platforms results in less capability because outnumbering an enemy limits his tactical options.
Fourth, aircraft costs continue to increase. Given budgetary limitations, it becomes increasingly clear that DoD must concern itself with cost as a primary consideration of aircraft procurement. While Air Force aircraft costs are the primary subject of this article, Army Aviation exhibited similar cost growth from the AH-1 Cobra through the RAH-66 Comanche. Given the needs of Army Aviation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2004 decision to cancel the high-tech, stealth Comanche helicopter was prescient.
Figure 5. Army Attack Helicopter Deliveries & Unit Cost (2014 Dollars)
However, just because an aircraft is less expensive does not mean it is inherently less capable. The examples of the F-16 and A-10 demonstrate that simpler, often cheaper, aircraft are more effective than their MRA counterparts. Less expense upfront allows for future development, as shown with the extensive avionics and capability upgrades to the A-10C and F-16D. In both Korea and Vietnam, the Air Force had to “power-down” its jet aircraft fleet and supported CAS missions with legacy propeller-driven aircraft. With long loiter times and the ability to cooperate closely with ground forces, older, slower propeller driven aircraft were well suited to CAS. This did not happen despite the clear requirement for low-cost, long-loiter CAS in Iraq and Afghanistan for two reasons: First, unmanned aircraft (UAS) surged to fill the gap. Second, since Vietnam Army Aviation has had an explicit mandate to provide support to land forces. However, Army Aviation only has helicopters with their built-in limitations of speed and cost. Adding turboprop, light fixed-wing aircraft to the Army inventory is worth study.
Army Aviation cannot allow itself to fall into the MRA trap. MRA, like so many other ideas, “brief well”; that is, they seem great but rapidly fall apart under scrutiny. Historically, joint aircraft programs exhibited three times the cost growth of single-service programs. This cost growth is a result of trying to cram too many requirements into a single platform. The excessive cost growth is only a small issue when compared to the lack of capabilities. Aircraft designed to do one function will do it well, with room to grow into other missions given time. Designing for multiple, nearly exclusive roles from the start inevitably results in poorly performing aircraft.
Army Aviation’s helicopter fleet demonstrates exactly the opposite trend of Air Force tactical aircraft. Rather than design expensive aircraft for multiple missions, Army aircraft nest within the doctrinal roles and mission of Army Aviation. For the seven Army Aviation roles, there are just four airframes, along with several variants. While Army aircraft are not cheap, they are orders of magnitude less expensive than Air Force jets and, surprisingly for helicopters, have similar maintenance requirements. Additionally, Army aircraft are tailored not for air power itself, but for the needs of ground commanders.
Given the historical issues with MRA costs and capabilities, Army Aviation must proceed cautiously down the path toward FVL. The initial FVL documents envisioned a few common aircraft models performing multiple missions. However, Army Aviation Commander MG Lundy clarified this in early 2015 stating, “We’re probably not going to have one aircraft that’s going to be able to do all the missions…I need to see where [the technology] goes.” Army Aviation is also wisely seeking iterative technology demonstrations (fly-offs) as part of the development process. Doing so will ensure only the best concepts move forward after validation through in real-world testing. FVL does seek commonality in terms of drivetrains, cockpit design, and avionics.
Like the F-111 and F-35, FVL commonality should reduce costs, as should using one aircraft for multiple missions. However, history shows that separate missions require separate aircraft and, more importantly, aircrews trained to perform each mission. Likewise, commonality or “jointness” rarely actually saves money or increases capability. Wisely, FVL seeks to a balance between commonality and mission-focus along the same lines of the Marine Huey and Cobra Attack helicopters, which share many common parts, but are very different aircraft. The danger is that political, budgetary, and historical trends will push FVL toward a one-size-fits-all solution, causing the program to repeat the mistakes of many previous American military aircraft.
In addition to scrutinizing FVL, Army Aviation must avoid other wishful thinking that has often accompanied another emerging technology, UAS. While UAS seemingly offer low cost and persistent loiter, they are demonstrably less effective than manned aircraft in areas that really count. Specifically, UAS are poor at providing re-tasking, developing a chaotic situation, and providing precision fires. Army Aviation must cautiously adopt UAS as part of Manned-Unmanned Teaming Operations with this in mind. UAS, like all high-tech, multi-role solutions, can only augment, not replace, well-designed aircraft flown by well-trained pilots.
Maintaining a balanced fleet, both cost effective and tailored to specific roles must be the foremost goal of Army Aviation during future aircraft development. Army Aviation must balance the benefits of technology with the harsh reality of budgets, while understanding that more platforms and pilots are generally better than fewer high-tech wonder weapons. Critical to this is a capable pool of pilots, aircraft with a high flyability rate, and relatively simple aircraft. After all, it is the Army Aviator “in the box,” not the “box” that matters in the end.
Note on methodology: Aircraft costs are notoriously difficult to pinpoint. This article utilized a variety of sources, mostly USAF and DOD documents to compute costs. When an aircraft had multiple variants, the most produced was used. All costs are displayed in 2014 dollars, adjusted 2014 year-end average Consumer Price Index.
 RAND Corp., “Do Joint Fighter Programs Save Money?” by Mark A. Lorell, Michael Kennedy, Robert S. Leonard, Ken Munson, Shmuel Abramzon, David L. An, and Robert A. Guffey, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2013), 39-40.
 James Fallows, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” The Atlantic (January/February 2015):18-21, retrieved May 26, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/features/
 Joseph Trevithick, “When is the F-35 Not a Dogfighter? When It’s Convenient,” Medium.com, accessed https://medium.com/war-is-boring/when-is-the-f-35-not-a-dogfighter-when-it-s-convenient-2fb1f233f42, July 5, 2015.
 See Michael W. Pietrucha, COL, USAF, “The Comanche and the Albatross,” Air and Space Power Journal 28, no. 3 (May–June 2014); Russell J. Smith, COL (Ret) USAF, “Common Sense at the Crossroads for Our Air Force,” Air and Space Power Journal 26, no. 2 (March–April 2012); For performance issues with the F-35 see David Axe, “F’d: How the U.S. and Its Allies Got Stuck with the World’s Worst New Warplane,” Medium.com, August 13, 2013, accessed https://medium.com/war-is-boring/fd-how-the-u-s-and-its-allies-got-stuck-with-the-worlds-worst-new-warplane-5c95d45f86a5, July 5, 2015.
 James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Random House, 1981), 104.
 Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington DC: Smithsonian, 2001), 69-72; USAF, Encyclopedia of US Air Force Aircraft and Missile Systems vol.1. Post-World War II Fighters, 1945-1973 (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1978), 222-225.
 Hammond, 69-72.
 Federation of American Scientists, “F-111,” accessed May 15, 2015 http://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ac/f-111.htm.
 Though each service had a variant, basic engineering demands forced the aircraft to incorporate multiple service requirements.
 Hammond, 70-71.
 James G. Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 74-75.
 Ibid.; Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millet, A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 306; Army Air Forces (AAF), Office of Statistical Control, Army Air Forces Statistical Digest, (Washington DC: GPO, December 1945).
 Burton, 74.
 James C. Ruehrmund, COL, USAF (Ret.) and Christopher J. Bowie, “Arsenal of Airpower: USAF Aircraft Inventory 1950-2009”(Arlington, VA: Mitchell Institute Press, 2010); AAF, Army Air Forces Statistical Digest; DoD Comptroller, Program Acquisition Cost by Weapons System-FY 2008-2015 (Washington DC: DoD, March 2014), accessed April 28, 2015, http://comptroller.defense.gov; Government Accounting Office (GAO), Operation Desert Storm-Evaluation of the Air Campaign (Washington DC: GAO, June 1997), Appendix IV; USAF, Encyclopedia of US Air Force Aircraft and Missile Systems vol.1.
 Dinah Walker, Trends in U.S. Military Spending, (Washington DC: Council on Foreign Relations, July 2014), accessed June 26, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/defense-budget/trends-us-military-spending/p28855.
 Hammond, 109.
 Martin Van Creveld, The Age of Airpower (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 433.
 Ruehrmund and Bowie; USAF, Encyclopedia of USAF Aircraft and Missile Systems vol. 1; DoD Comptroller, Program Acquisition Cost FY 2008-2015.
 Allan R. Millett, “Korea, 1950-1953,” in Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support, ed. by Benjamin Franklin Cooling (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1990), 363.
 Fallows, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” 20.
 Hammond, 94-95, 121.
 Fallows, National Defense, 100-103.
 Lorrell, et al., xiii-xvii.
 Ibid., xviii.
 Ibid., xix.
 Department of Defense, “Fixed-Wing and Rotary-Wing Reimbursement Rates,” Data from Fiscal Years 2011-2014, accessed May 15, 2015, http://comptroller.defense.gov.
 Arden B. Dahl, “The Warthog: The Best Deal the Air Force Never Wanted” (Monograph, National Defense University, 2003), 13. Department of the Air Force, Annex 3-03 Counterland Operations (Maxwell AFB, AL: GPO, 2014), 2-3. USAF doctrine 3-03, echoing 1930s Army Air Corps Doctrine, states air power should be employed only at “decisive points,” rather than in isolation because “CAS rarely achieves campaign-level objectives.”
 GAO, Operation Desert Storm-Evaluation of the Air Campaign (Washington DC: GAO, June 1997), Appendix IV; Burton, 26-27.
 GAO, Desert Storm-Evaluation of the Air Campaign, Appendix IV.
 Stephen Biddle, “Victory Misunderstood,” International Security 21, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 174.
 L. Douglas Keeney, The Pointblank Directive (Oxford: Osprey, 2012), 76-77.
 James A. Bradin, From Hot Air to Hellfire: The History of Army Attack Aviation (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1994); DoD Comptroller, Program Acquisition Cost System-FY 2008-2015; Selected Acquisition Report-AH-64E Remanufacture (Washington DC: US Army, 2014), accessed April 28, 2015, http://www.dtic.mil: document ADA613931.
 United States Air Force, USAF Weapons School, A-10C, F-16, F-15E Capabilities Briefs (presentation, Nellis AFB, NV, February 2015).
 Lorell, et. al, 11.
 Richard Whittle, “Army Looks to Build Two Forms of Future Vertical Lift,” Breaking Defense (January 2015), accessed September 28, 2015, http:///breakingdefense.com/2015/01.
 US Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), “Developments Enhance Future Vertical Lift Aircraft,” AMRDEC Press Release (July 29, 2015), accessed October 5, 2015, https://www.army.mil/article/153006.
 Fallows, National Defense, 98.