The F-35: Dog of Dogs

The F-35: Dog of Dogs

by David Archibald

16 February 2023


New information keeps coming out on just how bad the F-35 is, with recent reports from the US Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office. It seems they were directed to make the case against the F-35, head off any love for the Super Hornet (the F18E/Fs), and leave the F-15EX as the most attractive thing.


Figure 1: US fighter aircraft operating costs per hour 2011 – 2020


The F-22 is self-defeated by its radar absorbent material (RAM) coating. At US$84,000 per hour, it is simply too expensive to operate for something that only carries a handful of missiles. And missiles miss most of the time. The fighter that shot down the balloon over Lake Huron missed on the first attempt — on a stationary target. What is surprising is that the US Navy’s F-18s have suddenly become very expensive to operate, even more than the F-35s. The A-10s remain relatively cheap but then they are just flying targets for a peer adversary.


Figure 2: US bomber operating costs per hour 2011 – 2020


The B-1B used to be a bargain at US$60,000 per hour as recently as seven years ago. It is now three times that as it went beyond its original 30 year design life. The B-1B is flying into the sunset; the F-15EX can carry 81% of its bomb load at one sixth the operating cost with a much smaller radar cross section.

The B-52 is being re-engined, increasing its fuel efficiency by 40% and its range to 12,000 km. It will be a reliable bomb truck for decades to come. The B-2 is a relic from the era of gravity nuclear bombs, when you had to overfly the target to hit it. It would be more cost-effective to have the B-52 armed with longer range, stealthy cruise missiles than have the bomber trying to enter enemy airspace.


Figure 3: Super Hornet availability relative to USAF fighters, by age


Availability for the Super Hornet has dropped faster, at the same age, than any of the USAF fighters in inventory. How fast availability keeps dropping from here is a known unknown, but the portents aren’t good. This doesn’t necessarily translate to the RAAF’s Super Hornets, because these aren’t slammed onto carrier decks when landing.


Figure 4: Super Hornet flying hours per month relative to USAF fighters


This does not directly reflect the health of each aircraft type as flying hours are constrained by the budget for that aircraft type, so as operating cost per hour goes up, hours go down. Tasking is given to the most cost-effective aircraft type, so F-15E hours per month have gone up as all the others have gone down. Which in turn means that pilots aren’t getting the necessary hours per month to remain proficient.


Figure 5: Full mission availability rate of F-35 variants


The US Navy never really wanted its version — the F-35C, which rewards that lack of affection by being properly capable only 20% of the time. The Marine’s F-35B is simply too complicated a contraption for the austere bases the Marines hope to operate from. The F-35A’s full mission capable rate of 40% means that the type is almost completely useless.


Figure 6: Availability rates by age


One clue as to how fast an aircraft might age is to see how it stacks up against other fighters at the same age. It doesn’t look good for the F-35. It’s in a death dive that started at birth.  The F-35 fleet is likely to be parked up before it gets to a fleet average age of 10 years.


Figure 7: US DOD fighter and bomber fleets by average age


US fighter and bomber operating costs have suddenly started rising, as the average age passed 30 years. This problem started with the peace dividend of the 1990s, then the bad choice of the F-22 with its high operating cost, then the bad choice of the F-35 which combines being ineffective with a high operating cost.

The fleet is now being revived by deliveries of the F-15EX which has demonstrated high availability and stable operating costs in the F-15E model. The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter coming is likely to have a unit cost of US$300 million odd. The F-15EX, at less than half that, is likely to deliver greater combat efficacy per dollar outlay.

There are plenty of examples of aircraft types that were parked up due to high operating costs despite plenty of hours remaining on the airframe. The F-14 is one example, with 72 man-hours of maintenance per hour of flight. The main access panel on the F-14 requires three different wrenches to open it. Another example is the F-111 which, while being a great design, wasn’t designed for ease of maintenance with the result that it chewed 81 man-hours of maintenance per hour of flight.

What this means for the RAAF is that it will be replacing the F-35 much sooner than it thinks. When the USAF parks up its F-35s there won’t be any spare parts availability for anybody, let alone costs, availability, combat efficacy and the rest of it.


David Archibald is the author of The Anticancer Garden in Australia