US Armed Forces Aircraft Operating Costs – August 2016

An F-16C of the United States Air Force in flight. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
An F-16C of the United States Air Force in flight. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The United States (US) Defense Department released a couple of months ago a Financial Report showing the “Reimbursement Rate” for all the military aircraft used by the US Armed Forces.1 That rate is also a measure of the Cost per Flight Hour (CPFH) of each aircraft, or how much it costs to operate the aircraft for every hour of flight.2

Relations between the US and our new President Rodrigo R. Duterte has not been very good lately, hence I’m not sure if this information is still relevant to us anymore. But the US does have a new President, so there is a chance that relations with them will improve. At any rate, I think that it will still be good to take a closer look at these CPFH data just for general knowledge.

Now these data are a little bit tricky since they do tend to vary a lot if you look at some of the data that has been published out there over the years from other sources, but for the purposes of this blog, let’s just consider these latest data as the most accurate one for now.

To simplify things, I only considered the data on the “Total” column under the “All Other Users” section as it is slightly higher than the rest, so there will be a slight bias on the high side on the data I am going to use.

‘The Viper and the Superbug’
Let’s take a look first at the F-16C Fighting Falcon since our Air Force did express an interest in acquiring it a couple of years ago,3 although that transaction did not push thru due to one reason or the other, and its CPFH is given as USD 8.7k.

Another interesting aircraft to note would be the bigger and heavier F/A-18E/F Super Hornet whose CPFH data I found to be surprisingly not as large as I thought it would be at USD 11.1k, or a difference of “only” USD 2.4k compared to that of the F-16.

Of course if you stretch that difference out to, say, 200 Flight Hours (FH) which is the minimum required standard FHs per year by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),4 then that means an additional cost of USD 480k per aircraft per year.

Interestingly, these figures are very close to the CPFH study that the major defense publication Jane’s published a couple of years ago.5 Their data puts the CPFH for the F-16 at only USD 7k and that of the F/A-18 at USD 11k (their lower value estimate).

The F/A-18E/F does have certain advantages over the F-16, like the fact that its twin engines allow more power to be diverted to a more powerful radar. Recent estimates show that the F/A-18E/F has one of the most powerful radars mounted on a fighter aircraft, next only the SU-35 and the American Stealth fighters.6

However, while the difference in CPFH between the F-16 and F/A-18E/F is not that large, there seems to be a big difference in their initial acquisition prices. So many F-16s have been produced over the decades that even the US Air Force’s (USAF) have a surplus of them in storage.

F-16s refurbished by the manufacturer are available at relatively low prices, just like the ones Indonesia bought for a package price of only USD 32 million per aircraft.7 On the other hand, much less F/A-18E/Fs have been produced, and thus will only probably be available brand new, and the lowest package price I have found for them was the one quoted for Kuwait at around USD 107 million per aircraft.8

‘Frontline Fighters’
The CPFH data for the US Air Force’s (USAF) frontline fighters are as follows:
* F-15C Eagle – USD 24.1k
* F-22A Raptor – USD 35k
* F-35A Lightning II – USD 29.7k

Those numbers are simply staggering, at least for us. They are at least almost three times that of the F-16C, and at least twice of that of the F/A-18E/F. It’s an equivalent of at least a million pesos per hour to operate them, and I don’t think those will be within our capability to support any time soon.

‘Attack Aircraft’
A fan favorite here would be the A-10C Warthog, which was reportedly offered to our Air Force by Boeing.9 The data for the A-10C a couple years ago puts its CPFH at over USD 20k, but this new data puts it down at only USD 6.3k. I think the reason for the difference is that the old data included the aircraft’s Depreciation Cost before whereas the new data only involves strictly just the OCs. This new CPFH data would make the A-10C cheaper to operate than the F-16C.

Another fan favorite are the Hercules series of Gunships. The older AC-130U and AC-130W have very high CPFHs at USD 13.4k and USD 11.5k respectively, but the newer AC-130J has a much lower CPFH of only USD 4.6k, lower than even that of the A-10C.

The reason for that is probably because the AC-130J is a newer aircraft requiring less maintenance, and also probably because it is a newer design, with more stress put on its maintainability. The AC-130J doesn’t come cheap, though, as it costs approximately USD 123 million each to acquire.10

‘The Talon and Drones’
The T-38C Talon which is very similar to the F-5A Freedom Fighters we used to operate have CPFHs of only USD 3.4k, which is over two and half times lower than that of the F-16C.

Another information I found interesting are the Drones that the USAF is using, which turns out to be very low CPFHs at only USD 1k for the MQ-9A Reaper and even lower USD 700 for the MQ-1B Predator. Because of these very low costs, these could be ideal for long duration Surveillance and Light Attack roles for Internal Security Operations (ISO).

Those Drones won’t come cheap, though, the lowest package price I could find for them was USD 32 million each.11 That is a bit on the high side if you consider it’s about the same price we paid for the FA-50PH Fighting Eagle that we bought from South Korea.12

‘P-3C Orion’
Another aircraft of interest here would be the P-3C Orion which we have expressed interest in getting from Japan. In my blog about it a couple of years ago,13 I mentioned a reference from New Zealand which put its CPFH at USD 8k, and now this data puts it at USD 7.8k, which confirms that earlier data I cited. This makes the Orion slightly cheaper to operate than the F-16C.

‘Helicopters’
Last will be the Helicopters. Taking a look at the Attack Helicopters first, it turns out that it didn’t matter if it was the Army’s AH-64D Apache or the Navy’s AH-1W or AH-1Z Super Cobras, they have more or less the same CPFH of around USD 6-7k. Below are their specific CPFH data:
* AH-64 – USD 6.8k
* AH-1W – USD 7.1k
* AH-1Z – USD 6.0k

However, similar to the case of the F-16 and F/A-18 above, while the CPFHs of these Helicopter are more or less the same, there seems to be a big difference in their initial acquisition costs. Turkey was able to buy refurbished AH-1W Helicopters for a package price of only USD 37 million each,14 whereas the sale of brand new AH-1 Helicopters had a package price of USD 68 million each.15

‘Parting Shot’
If we do ever get to consider getting American designed and made fighter aircraft again (and if they do sell them to us), then it looks like only the F-16C and F/A-18E/F are within our realistic capability to maintain and operate. As for other aircraft, the AH-1 Helicopters also looks nice, as are the Drones due to their low operating costs but those do come with a relatively high acquisition costs.

An AH-1W Super Cobra Attack Helicopter of the United States Marine Corps (USMC). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
An AH-1W Super Cobra Attack Helicopter of the United States Marine Corps (USMC). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

SOURCES:


  1. FY 2016 Reimbursable Rates (US Armed Forces Aircraft),
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20160424054825/http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/documents/rates/fy2016/2016_f_h.pdf
  2. A look into how much it costs to fly America’s military planes per hour,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20160814160200/http://www.businessinsider.com/price-military-aircraft-per-flight-hour-2016-8
  3. Philippines want to procure 12 F-16 fighter jets from the US,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20151024204313/http://www.f-16.net/f-16-news-article4490.html
  4. NATO’s land forces: Losing ground,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20150427221212/http://www.aei.org/publication/natos-land-forces-losing-ground
  5. Gripen operational cost lowest of all western fighters: Jane’s,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20160529010922/http://www.stratpost.com/gripen-operational-cost-lowest-of-all-western-fighters-janes
  6. Exact Aircraft Radar Ranges,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20160918125944/https://rhk111smilitaryandarmspage.wordpress.com/exact-aircraft-radar-ranges/
  7. Indonesia – Regeneration and Upgrade of F-16C/D Block 25 Aircraft,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20160704113513/http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/indonesia-regeneration-and-upgrade-f-16cd-block-25-aircraft
  8. Kuwait decides to buy F-18 fighter jets from Boeing for $3bn, rejecting UK-made Typhoon deal,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20151224000349/http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/kuwait-decides-buy-f-18-fighter-jets-boeing-3bn-rejecting-uk-made-typhoon-deal-1500258
  9. A-10 Maritime Missions, Air International Magazine – June 2016,
    https://web.archive.org/web/20160918130558/https://www.facebook.com/philippinedefensebulletin/photos/a.583465045089141.1073741828.581990991903213/731652123603765/?type=3&permPage=1 
  10. Lockheed ends 2015 with $5.3 billion C-130J deal,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20160601042027/https://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/lockheed-ends-2015-with-53-billion-c-130j-deal-420445/
  11. Italy – MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20161229005342/http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/italy-mq-9-unmanned-aerial-vehicles
  12. KAI won a contract to export 12 FA-50s to the Phil,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20151208081200/https://www.koreaaero.com/english/pr_center/cpr_view.asp?pg=1&gubun=v&seq=25777&bbs=10
  13. P-3C Orion for the Philippine Air Force,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20160918130253/https://rhk111smilitaryandarmspage.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/p-3c-orion-for-the-philippine-air-force/
  14. DSCA News Release, AH-1W Super Cobra Helicopters for Turkey,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20160918124408/http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/turkey-ah-1w-super-cobra-attack-helicopters
  15. DSCA News Release, AH-64D Longbow Apache Helicopters for Turkey,
    (https://web.archive.org/web/20160531164854/http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/egypt-ah-64d-apache-longbow-helicopters
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5 thoughts on “US Armed Forces Aircraft Operating Costs – August 2016”

  1. Thanks for this detailed article. Nice to have a quick reference on the viability of the PAF operating US aircraft. Would you also be able to post similar stats for the Russian built types like the ones Nicky mentioned above? Based on some article I read a while back, of the listed Russian aircraft, the MIG-35 might be the most affordable in terms of acquisition though there was no data on CPFH. The article claimed the MIG-35 was most similar to the F-16 in terms of performance although it also said the ‘improved’ Fulcrum couldn’t hold a candle to the Viper’s combat radius.

    1. You’re welcome, Harrison. As for posting the CPFH stats for the Russian Fighter Aircraft, I’m not sure about that. These CPFH data are unique because the US Department of Defense (DoD) itself officially released the data to the public. So unless the Russian DoD does the same thing, then it is going to be a lot harder to get the CPFH data for each individual aircraft.

      I personally am thankful to the US DoD for posting such data publicly. I am also quite curious about the CPFH of Russian aircraft, so I will try to search around also, just not sure what kind of data I will find.

      1. I’ve always been intrigued by Russian aircraft as they almost always seem cheaper to acquire than Western aircraft, although the brand new ones coming out (e.g. SU-30 series, SU-35, and SU-50) seem set to break this trend. But I do understand your difficulty in acquiring CPFH of Russian aircraft, though. Those figures just don’t seem to be for public consumption at all. However, if all the horror stories about operating Russian equipment is true, then I suspect CPFH of Russian fighter jets might actually be higher or just as high as Western fighters. But then again, that’s also assuming that all those horror stories are accurate and not just embellishments as a result of a pro-western bias. Anyways, here’s hoping you do find some facts and figures, rhk111. And great job on this blog! Please continue the good work.

      2. Thanks, Harrison. Yeah, Russian fighter aircraft are very cheap, Venezuela got their SU-30s for only around USD 42 million per aircraft, but operating costs seems to be quite high. I think a fairly credible account of how the Sukhois operate would be the experience of the Indian Air Force, they have a couple hundred of them, and it has not been easy for them so far.

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