Damn, Warplanes Are Expensive
But some are way more costly to operate than others
Official cost tables for the U.S. Air Force’s roughly 5,000 warplanes tell a sobering tale.
The tables, which Inside the Air Force first obtained, break down costs for most of the flying branch’s plane types, and include dollar figures for flying, repairs, modifications and upgrades.
Bottom line—planes are expensive. Just how expensive varies widely—and depends in part on how much time a particular plane actually spends in the air.
The B-2 stealth bomber ain’t cheap, but in 2014 it wasn’t the most expensive plane to operate in the Air Force’s inventory. Not even nearly.
That dubious distinction belongs to the E-4, a 747 that the flying branch packed with computers, radios and other special gear so it can function as a flying command post during a nuclear war.
The Air Force possesses four E-4s. In 2014 they spent a combined 1,577 hours in the air. Each hour of flight set taxpayers back $154,717 for fuel, parts and repairs. Add in modifications and R&D for upgrades and each E-4 cost a staggering $62,878,208 to operate last year, roughly as much as the African country of Malawi spent on its entire military.
The Air Force’s 20 B-2s were its second-costliest warplanes to keep flying last year. In 2014, the B-2s flew 5,984 hours at a cost of $128,467 per hour. Counting upgrades, each of the batwing bombers rang up an operations tab of $38,946,292.
Compare that to the Air Force’s cheapest-to-operate planes—its training gliders. The 35 TG-series gliders burned $3,987 per hour for a combined 5,234 hours in the air in 2014. Total ownership cost per glider was just $597,756, equivalent to 11 times the income of the median American family.
The busiest planes in the Air Force are the drones—the 152 Predators and the 151 larger Reapers. On average, each Predator flew 1,274 hours and each Reaper flew 1,233 hours in 2014.
The drones weren’t terribly expensive per hour—$3,998 for a Predator and $3,219 for a Reaper. But long sorties, and lots of them, plus modifications drove the total ownership cost for a single Predator to $5,137,841. A Reaper cost $4,056,567.
Compared to the robots, the Air Force’s manned fighters are practically lazy. Each of 971 F-16 fighters flew just 200 hours in 2014, for an hourly cost of $21,415 and a total ownership bill of $4,307,876 per plane.
The 187 F-22 stealth fighters compare even less favorably. The F-22s each flew 161 hours in 2014, on average—and took the taxpayer for $53,084 per hour in the air and $9,333,045 in total ownership cost.
Only the C-17 airlifter works anywhere near as hard as the drones. The Air Force has 222 of the four-engine transports. On average, each one flew a surprising 823 hours last year—more than any other airlift type. It took $25,343 to keep a C-17 in the air for one hour—or $21,018,494 for a year of regular use, including enhancements.
The 2014 cost tables are the first to include data for the flying branch’s newest warplane, the much-maligned F-35. The Air Force has 37 of the complex stealth fighters. Last year they flew just 102 hours apiece, gobbling up $67,549 every 60 minutes, for an annual ownership bill of $6,947,432 per plane.
The Air Force insists it must retire tried-and-true A-10 attack planes to free up money for more F-35s, but if the 2014 cost tables are any indication, it will take more than a few A-10s to fund the new stealth jets.
That’s because the armored, gun-armed A-10s are cheap. Each of the 298 attack jets flew 280 hours in 2014, at a cost of just $19,041 per hour. The public shelled out $5,337,984 for each A-10—approximately as much as it spent operating a single Predator drone.