Trimming cost of military weapons but still getting same quality and quantity

One hears of the fighter jets that cost $70 million, $135 million apiece, etc., the submarines that cost $2 billion, the missiles that cost hundreds of thousands apiece, etc.

Now, how much of this is irreducible cost, and how much of it is unnecessary, bloated, inefficiency/profit?
If this were re-done all over again, would it be *technically *doable to cut the price tag and investment down to just, say, one-third of the current cost, and still get the same quantity and quality? Say, the same stealth fighter for $30 million instead of $90 million?

A lot of the cost for military equipment is spent on research and development or tooling up for production, spread out over the run of equipment instead of paid as a separate lump sum. It takes a lot of money to design a new aircraft or missile, and to set up factories to build and assemble the various parts, plus testing to make sure they work right after assembly. To really figure out how much you can cut off of the price of high end military equipment, you need to look at the cost of the whole run (including design and setup), not just the incremental cost to push one more already designed jet off of an already created and staffed assembly line.

Basic stuff that’s long since been paid for and is made in huge runs tends to have a really low per unit cost - small arms and ammunition, for example, are extremely cheap, and design costs have long since been paid off.

To segue off of an excellent post, the easiest way would probably be to limit new equipment bid/options. Run longer with the same equipment. Other options might include requesting items at a price point. Request a fighter or tank build for $x million each and see who builds the best one under that price.

We already do this, pretty much. The B-52 has been in service longer than most 'dopers (including me) have been alive. Most of the current generation of US fighter jets were designed in the 70’s. As to your proposal, sounds like a recipe for us to get a lot of useless crap that is simply incremental updates to existing designs…if that. Basically, no aero-space company is going to respond to your RFP for a fixed cost, or if they do it will be with stuff they have off the shelf already, which means you might as well just keep retreading your old stuff.

As to the OP:

You have to look at the mission (a.k.a. the requirements). As well as the assumptions. Are you good with your missiles having a certain failure rate, or missing a certain percentage? Well then, how risk averse are you? You good with, say, 1 in 10 misfiring or missing it’s target? 1 in 5? 1 in 100? 1 in 1000? What about crew survivability? Scalablility of the design (i.e. can you retrofit in modifications to extend it’s lifetime)? All of those things are going to impact your final price. If you are good with killing a lot of additional civilians and you don’t particularly care if your crews come back then just go with a lot of dumb bombs flown by a propeller driven air craft and stick with that. The more you care about those things, the more things will cost, basically.

You need to look at apples to apples when looking at this. Look at all of the fighters built by other countries that have the same potential as the F-35 (since that’s the fighter you are talking about). Oh, that’s right…there aren’t any. Which is why so many other countries are lining up to buy them from us. But with tanks we can do a bit better. You could compare and Abrams to, say, a Leopard II, Challenger II, Merkava, TK-X and Leclerc (you could look at the Russian/Chinese stuff as well, but honestly this is a case where cheaper didn’t work out so well when they have gone head to head with western designs in the past). The Abrams probably comes in a bit high price wise (IIRC, it’s about $4 million per US tank, compared to, say, $2 million per Leopard II). Of course, the Abrams came out before many of those others, so there was a bit of cutting edge about it. Also, the missions are different, and that impacts cost.

US weapons systems in some cases cost more. But a lot of that is because our requirements for our military are a lot different than many other countries…hell, than ANY other country. Our expectations are different as well as our tolerance for collateral damage and crew loss. But our political system also impacts the cost (where are you proposing to build your weapons system? How many subcontractors from how many states? How many jobs will this bring to Americans?). In the end, though, you can’t disconnect the cost from the requirements, and the US puts the highest requirements on our military weapons systems than anyone, because we ask more of our military than anyone (and we pay more for our military than anyone).

When the media reports that a fighter jet costs $70 million per, I assume they are referring to the cradle to grave cost of the program divided by the number of jets built, but I could be wrong. I’m far from knowledgable on the subject, but I’ve have to take several defense acquisition courses and the whole system of procuring a new weapon is extremely complex but they have it mapped out pretty well.

I love flow charts, but that one would take me a while to figure out. But, yeah, your overall point is valid…a lot of the cost is for a weapons system, cradle to grave (including R&D in the designs that make the cut…in those that don’t a lot of times companies only get a payment for the prototype), and all of those costs figure into the unit price. In some respects the US gets a bargain out of our stuff, since we keep stuff around and continually upgrade and maintain it for decades (the original M1 Abrams are still out there, designed in the 70’s and first deployed in the early 80’s…they are now retrofitted to be M2A2 and whatever subversion they are today).

Actually, you’ve got that exactly backwards. There’s no American major weapons system that doesn’t have a separate R&D budget that is totally severable from the production cost. This is in contrast to pretty much all commercial goods, in which the sales price is expected to recoup R&D, non-recurring engineering, etc.

You’re onto something, but for the wrong reasons. The main reason mature weapons are lower in cost has nothing to do with amortizing R&D and tooling, which in the US are totally separate budgets. It has to do with the learning that has occurred in a mature production program, in which costs decline along a predictable curve as production quantities double.

You’ve got it backwards for most media reporting. If you want to buy one more F-35 today, it will cost about $100 million. That’s just the cost of the aircraft. Some reporting will aggregate the R&D and production cost, but not operations or disposal cost, like in the “the B-2 cost $2 billion a copy.” There is virtually no reporting of the full lifecycle cost of individual weapons.

As for the OP, no, there’s no way to cut 70% from the cost of weapons. You could probably cut 1-2% by having a more efficient acquisition system, and maybe 5-10% by controlling requirements more carefully. ETA: And we could probably save 10% by committing more money up front to multiyear contracts (where the government guarantees minimum orders of something over the next few years, with substantial cancellation penalties.) But to cut the cost of a Virginia class submarine by 70%, you’d have to make it a diesel submarine. You just can’t make a nuclear reactor that’s quiet for a fraction of the cost we pay today - to use just one example.

It’s an interesting OP and one I’ve pondered a few times.

The prices of fighter jet aircraft seem ludicrously expensive, considering not all that long ago fighter aeroplanes were literally made out of wood, canvas and wire.

Obviously technology has moved on a lot since then (and rightly so) but I really have to wonder how there’s $100 million worth of stuff in a modern jetfighter. I know it’s easy to handwave away with “state-of-the-art technology” and “stealth”, but even so - $100 million per jet is a huge amount of money for something that necessarily seem to involve $100 million worth of “stuff” to the layperson.

What’s also interesting is how much work is being undertaken in the small arms design field - especially considering most militaries are using a variant of either the AR-15 or the AK-47 nowadays.

A big piece of the puzzle that’s missing is that in a lot of cases, the military hardware is unique, unlike civilian stuff, which is often somewhat more “kit-bashed” and uses components that are decades old and/or common to multiple models.

E.g. I’d bet that the landing gear for the F-35 has very little in common parts-wise with the landing gear of the F-14, F-18 or F-22. So they basically just had to design, build and test brand new landing gear. Chrysler on the other hand, used the PowerTech 3.7/4.7 L engines on pretty much all their SUV or pickup lines for nearly a decade. Some manufacturers do that, and then tweak the engine a bit, and use it for another several years.

Another aspect of the military’s uniqueness is that a lot of the components are specified to different tolerances/performance. So Boeing’s jetliner expertise isn’t as handy as one might think- the composite airframe parts are going to be substantially different than those of a 737, for example.

Sometimes, they do buy off-the-shelf stuff, and those are much cheaper. For example, the USCG’s HH-65 Dolphin helicopters are for all intents and purposes, stock Eurocopter (Aerospatiale) Dauphins, and they buy commercial spares from them as well, at IIRC, a volume discount.

5th generation fighters are certainly expensive since they are so cutting edge. If you dig into “state-of-the-art technology” and “stealth” you will see it’s not a handwave…there are good and valid reasons why those things cost more to build into your air craft. Looking at the few other 5th generation air craft out there, they all seem to have a unit price that is pretty similar or at least in the ball park. The Russian Sukhoi/HAL FGFA (T-50), which isn’t out yet afaik btw, is listed as around $50+ million per plane (projected…I’ve seen the price run to $100 million per plane in some estimates). No idea what the supposed Chinese 5th generation planes will cost (Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31…both look surprisingly similar to an F-35), but it helps when you steal another countries R&D and use at least some of their design. I’m guessing that whatever it costs it won’t be as good as the F-35.

Which, of course, gets to the point. What are your requirements? What is your tolerance for losses? Are you good taking the Sherman approach…sending in a lot of vehicles knowing you are going to take tremendous losses to your crews but hoping your numbers will overwhelm them in the end? If you buy 4 fighters for the price of your enemies 1 how much do you really save if you lose 5 fighters to 1 in exchanges?

The US has wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology and really be the one that everyone else follows. We introduced the first operational 5th gen fighters and will have them in service a year or more than anyone else. And we won’t know how they all stack up until we can see the operational versions other countries are developing. What I can say based on how things have played out in the past is that most US air frames get quite a bit of use and generally we keep them in service for decades. Most of the current generation of fighters in the US inventory were designed in the 70’s and most will still be in use until the 2020’s, maybe even the 2030’s in National Guard units. The new generation fighters will take the US into mid-century at least. And the new generation of fighters (6th gen, presumably) will cost even more and have even more capabilities. Hell, maybe we will finally get those space fighters Sci-Fi is always going on about, as well as helio-carriers. :stuck_out_tongue:

That program is teetering on the brink of total collapse, last I read. India and Russia Fail to Resolve Dispute Over Fifth Generation Fighter Jet – The Diplomat

I’ve also heard knowledgable people referring to it as a 4.5 gen fighter, because it’s radar signature turned out so much worse than expected.

The one thing I thought of is that the price of aircraft could maybe come down significantly as additive manufacturing becomes industrial scale. Building aircraft is mostly about drilling thousands upon thousands of holes, so the ability to produce parts in a way that eliminates a lot of touch labor would be seriously groundbreaking in terms of cost.

Yeah, I’ve heard similar things, but if you want to use counter examples of 5th generation air craft to compare to something like the F-22 or F-35 it’s pretty sparse so thought I’d use that. This will (assuming it gets done and is deployed) be the first Russia fighter to incorporate stealth, so it’s probably (almost certainly) not going to be on par with either air craft in terms of capabilities. The Chinese fighter, despite stealing the plans directly from the US, will almost certainly be even less capable, and isn’t expected until at least the 2020’s (again, assuming it gets built and deployed at all). Japan also has one in development as did Europe, though I think many NATO countries are now simply planning to purchase F-35s instead of going their own route (there isn’t one listed in that Wiki article I linked to earlier, though I seem to recall that either France or Germany was trying to develop one at one point).

Although there is certainly profit and waste (and on occassion, some degree of fraud) in new system procurements, the egregious cost of new systems largely reflects the development of bleeding edge technologies under the theory that these features (such as stealth technology) give an indominable capability against an opponent’s defense. The problem is that trying to estimate what it will take to develop and apply those technologies on a real world system is something of a fool’s errand, with ultimate costs often being an order of magnitude more than the generally optimistic estimates at the beginning of the program. There is also the administrative costs of having to deal with these kinds of overruns and contract changes. (This is an argument against firm fixed price contracts on development programs; they often constrain the technical success of the program and end up generating more management costs than they would theoretically save, especially since the contractor who wins a contract in a “low-cost technically acceptable” proposal will often intentionally low-ball the estimate and then play the “out of scope” card whenever the contract authority starts asking for any extra effort; in one case, a contractor left out anything about the guidance and control system on a launch vehicle proposal and the poorly-equipped proposal eval team missed it, so when the government asked about GN&C, the contractor claimed that it was “out of scope” and charged them almost as much as the original cost of the entire program to pull a basis GN&C system off the shelf and slap it into their system. Good times.)

It is also the case that these supposed advanced capabilities only offer an advantage in a very narrow area, or only for a short period of time. The B-2 ‘Spirit’, for instance, offered a capabilty that really wasn’t even needed when it was developed and for which detection countermeasures were rapidly developed, such that had the Soviet Union not dropped their pants and tripped head first into the outhouse they likely would have made teh B-2 obsolete by the mid to late 'Nineties. Or we’ll take a certain capability and apply it to a system that is intended to do it all in order to recoup the costs, e.g. the F-22 ‘Lightning II’ that quickly developed such an expensive per-unit cost that it was deemed too costly to expose to exactly the kind of missions it was designed to fly, and the reduction in production resulted in a higher per-unit cost due to having to spread the development costs across fewer units. The F-35 was supposed to be the cheaper vehicle that met most of the extensive capabilities but rapidly became essentially just as expensive. The reality is that evolutionary developments on The F/A-18 along the low observability and low cost/risk of UAVs pretty much offers the same capabiltiies as the F-22/F-35 at far less procurement and operating costs.

And then there is software. Jesus, software; never has so much been spent on something so intangible to get something which requires so much effort to get any confidence in its reliability. Software gives you capabilities that are just amazing, but it is just the absolute worst part of any development effort in staying on schedule and budget.

Norm Augustine’s eponymous Laws covers this in extensive detail with knowning humor, extrapolation of trends, and the personal experience of the author in seeing both his own company and other aerospace contractors, as well as government procurment agencies, fumble again and again at controlling cost and achieving some fraction of the often over-promised capability. It’s a good read, and explains very clearly why if you want the absolute best capability, you’re going to pay through the nose and still be disappointed.


Order of magnitude? Even the worst defense acquisition program in recent history, which is/was a clusterfuck that makes the F-35 look like a date in which the couple hook up at the end, cost about 3 times more than estimates. “Order of magnitude” is laughable.

This message is paid for by the Boeing Corporation. Problem is that they are also the only ones buying it.

No, I do not work for the fucking Boeing Corporation, and I’m far from the only person who has observed this.

If you want to make an accusation of perfidy, just make it outright or shut the fuck up.


Um…ok. Can you go over your logic behind how a plane designed and developed over 20 years ago with no stealth capabilities and some drones give us the same capabilities of both of Americans gen 5 aircraft? I’m just curious as it seemed a very specific and directed response with ‘The reality is that evolutionary developments on The F/A-18 along the low observability and low cost/risk of UAVs pretty much offers the same capabiltiies as the F-22/F-35 at far less procurement and operating costs’. I can see the assertion that the operational costs would be less, but that the capabilities would be the same?? That’s an odd assertion.

FTR I’m not saying you are lying OR in the pocket of any major aero-space companies (I don’t think Ravenman was either btw)…just trying to see where you are coming from with these claims and what they are based on.

Ravenman and Stranger On A Train, both of you dial back on the personal comments and stick to discussing the points of the debate.

[ /Moderating ]

To be clear, I’m stating that the assertion that upgraded F/A-18s offer “the same capabilities” at “far less… costs” is simply factually wrong. In addition, the only source of such a claim I am aware of is literally the Boeing Corporation. That pitch circulated DC roughly two years ago, and I don’t think anyone agreed with it. Now, there were some who thought that the F-35 cost too much, and would prefer to wait for the Navy’s sixth generation fighter, which should be ready for deployment in twenty years or so, but I strongly disagree that anyone believes that fourth and fifth generation aircraft capabilities are “the same.”

I don’t know of anyone in the aerospace industry who has claimed that UAVs offer the same capabilities as an F-22 or F-35. This is just a thoroughly bizarre claim, along the lines of th debates we’ve had here about bringing back battleships. It’s that far outside of what current defense leaders believe.

This article, “Meet the most hated man in the Pentagon” about a Pentagon cost-cutter (Anapolis grad and 20 years as a defense industry exec) brought this thread to mind. Not sure he is shooting for one-third of costs but the article points out the challenges in reducing costs.

Nukes are cheaper than armies.