Warplanes: The High Cost Of Staying On Top

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July 14, 2015: The American F-22 fighter is arguably the most advanced and capable in the world. It is also the most expensive, which why only 195 were built. The 38 ton F-22 can cruise at 1,900 kilometers an hour and has a top speed of 2,400 kilometers an hour. Max range is 3,000 kilometers with external fuel. Normally the combat radius is 760 kilometers. The F-22 can carry about two tons of bombs and missiles internally and five tons externally. It is very stealthy and has some of the most advanced EW (Electronic Warfare) and sensors of any aircraft in service. All this capability is expensive to maintain and the cost per flight hour for maintenance is about $70,000. That’s about three times what it costs for the F-16.

All that tech also produces a lot of upgrades and fixes. The U.S. Air Force has a special program for that called RAMMP (Reliability And Maintainability Maturation Program) which will cost nearly $2 billion by the early 2020s to pay for 10,824 upgrade kits for 162 aircraft. Some of the changes are minor but some involve major upgrades to electronic systems or strengthening the fuselage or other structural elements of the aircraft. Major structural upgrades are part of another program costing over $300 million. RAMMP and other refurb and upgrade work improves reliability and readiness rates as well as reducing per-flight-hour maintenance costs. All this work also helps the F-22 to achieve its goal of remaining in service for 8,000 flight hours per aircraft. The air force currently has 183 F-22s in service and the aircraft is not exported because of the risk of some of the tech being stolen. .

American warplanes like the F-22 and F-35 are often called "5th generation" fighters. This leaves many wondering what the other generations were. The reference is to jet fighters, and the first generation was developed during and right after World War II (German Me-262, British Meteor, U.S. F-80, and Russian MiG-15). These aircraft were, even by the standards of the time, difficult to fly and unreliable (especially the engines). The 2nd generation (1950s) included more reliable but still dangerous to operate aircraft like the F-104 and MiG-21. The 3rd generation (1960s) included F-4 and MiG-23. The 4th generation (1970s) included F-16 and MiG-29. Each generation has been about twice as expensive (on average, in constant dollars) as the previous one. But each generation is also about twice as safe to fly and cheaper to operate. Naturally, each generation is more than twice as effective as the previous one.

The Russians are still working on their 5th generation, although some of the derivatives of their Su-27 are at least generation 4.5. One of the reasons the Soviet Union collapsed was the realization that they could not afford to develop 5th generation warplanes to stay competitive with America. The Russians had a lot of interesting stuff on the drawing board and in development but the bankruptcy of most of their military aviation industry during the 1990s left them scrambling to put it back together ever since. At the moment the Russians are thinking of making a run for the 6th generation warplanes, which will likely be unmanned and largely robotic.

 

 

 


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