In 2012, Lockheed has been awarded ten contracts for LRIP Lot 5, with total value of 5,876 billion USD for 32 aircraft; thus per-unit airframe cost is 183,6 million USD. This, however, does not include the engine; engine for F-35A costs 38,4 million USD, which makes unit flyaway cost of 222 million USD for Lot 5. Lot 4 aircraft cost 179,2 million USD without the engine, with engine adding 39,4 million USD; unit flyaway cost is thus 218,6 million USD per aircraft.
This earlier article shows F-35 LRIP 5 cost to be 203,4 million USD, with F-35A costing 172 million USD, F-35B 291,7 million USD, and F-35C 235,8 million USD. It is easy to notice that STOVL version – which is source of many, though not all, problems with F-35s design – is the most expensive one. According to this article, unit flyaway costs were 195,5 million USD for F-35A and 216,6 million USD for F-35B and C in 2012, and 187,7 million USD for F-35A and 277,9 million USD for F-35B/C in 2013. 2014 request gives F-35A unit cost as 188,5 million USD.
Israel, which unlike other countries can not use US help to buy aircraft (which has effect bringing the cost way below actual production cost) was offered 75 F-35As for a price of 202,6 million USD per aircraft. As can be seen above, this cost is only what Israel would have paid for aircraft themselves, and does not include support hardware, weapons or other related expenses.
This document shows FY2013 budget submission for USAF. On page 10, FY2012 cost is shown to be 3.545.196.000 USD for 18 F-35A, or 197 million USD for each F-35A. Page 11 shows FY2013 cost to be 3.353.279.000 USD for 19 F-35A, or 176.488.368 USD for F-35A unit flyaway. F-35 modifications for FY 2013 cost 147.995.000 USD, or 7.789.210 USD per aircraft; as a result, F-35A unit cost is 184.277.587.000 USD.
Conclusion: F-35 unit flyaway cost is between 180 and 300 million USD depending on variant.
Costs are unlikely to go down, and are actually likely to go up. Reason for this is that modern fighter aircraft are upgraded continuously, disallowing design to settle and potentially be optimized for mass production. Moreover, F-35, with its exclusive dependance on high-tech gadgets, will end up being massively upgraded over its lifetime. This process is actually obvious in all modern fighter aircraft: F-16A costs 30 million USD; far more electronics-heavy F-16C costs 70 million USD. F-15A costs 42,7 million USD; F-15C costs 126,2 million USD. Eurofighter Typhoon is an exception, with both T2 and T3 costing around 137 million USD. All values are in FY-2013 USD. As F-35 is far closer to the F-15s philosophy of reliance on high technology than the F-16s philosophy of comparatively simple approach (in fact, F-16 had its internal space intentionally limited by Fighter Mafia in order to prevent too much electronics being stuffed into it), F-35 is likely to end up costing 600-900 million USD (FY-2013) by the end of its service. Further, modern fighter aircraft are not produced but built, especially stealth aircraft – there is no WW2-like assembly line, and stealth aircraft are inherently incompatible with it. Neither are savings predicted by the DoD – namely, in labor costs and parts production – likely to occur; if anything, these costs will increase.
In fact, while F-35 production costs have been going down between 2009 and 2011, from 2011 to 2014 they have been in a steady increase, without any sign of slowing down. This is in complete contrast with official line that costs are coming down, and is remiscent of F-22s cost increase. F-22s unit flyaway cost did level off at 200 million USD per aircraft by year 5 of procurement (2008), only to go back up towards end of the program, finally reaching 250 million USD (273 million USD in FY13 USD).
These costs also do not include R&D expenses, which are paid for separately. These are estimated to total 40 billion USD; with 3132 aircraft expected to be procured by program partners, costs will total 12,8 million USD per aircraft – more, if number of aircraft procured is reduced. In fact, my own estimate is that total F-35 procurement might fall down to 800 aircraft among program partners, bringing per-aircraft R&D costs to 50 million USD, and F-35A cost to 240 million USD – even discounting any design fixes and consequent R&D budget and production cost increases that are certain to happen. However, 40 billion USD for R&D is most likely an underestimation due to F-35s troubles; best avaliable estimate puts total R&D cost estimate at 60 billion USD. This results in 19 million USD R&D cost per aircraft if expected number of aircraft is procured, and 75 million USD in more likely situation of total orders being cut to 800.
There are other costs too: amphibious ships and even air fields require significant modifications to accomodate STOVL F-35B. Aircraft itself is very hard to maintain and requires large amounts of fuel. For this reason, it is likely to have cost per flying hour that is 70-80% of F-22s, translating into 42.700 to 48.800 USD per hour of flight – higher cost is more likely.
It should be noted that exports are not indicative of F-35s unit cost since significant percentage of cost is paid for by US Government, under expectations that any investment to secure F-35s exports will be profitable since F-35s have to go to US for maintenance and upgrades – which comes with a price tag.
How much capability is gained for all this expense? Not much, as F-35 isn’t good fighter aircraft – too slow and sluggish to survive aerial combat, too fast and vulnerable to carry out good CAS, and is not a good bomber either due to the limited payload when in stealth configuration – any external payload negates any stealth advantages it has compared to the F-16C. In fact, while it is expected to replace F-16, F-18, EA-6, F-111, A-10 and AV-8B, it is decisively inferior to each of these aircraft in their roles, and it replaces 6 aircraft types not with one, but with three. More in the links below: