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The Skyrocketing Cost of Airpower in One Crazy Stat

In 1916, the Navy bought a Curtiss N-9 for $6k. Today, just one F-35 costs $110 million.

test flight
U.S. NavyGetty Images

    A tweet from the U.S. Naval Institute demonstrates the dramatic difference between two of naval aviation’s most advanced planes, 104 years apart.

    You love badass planes. So do we. Let's nerd out over them together.

    Over the past century, the cost of tactical aircraft purchased by the Navy has grown by approximately 80-fold, sending costs spiraling above the $100 million mark. The rise of unmanned combat aircraft could be the only way to return to fiscal sanity.

    The tweet says the Curtiss N-9, the first aircraft that the Navy purchased, cost the service $6,000 in 1916. Today, more than a century later, the Navy’s frontline fighter jet, the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, boasts an eye-popping $110 million price tag. (Adjusted for inflation, the N-9 would cost $143,000 in 2020.)

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    The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company N-9 was a seaplane derived from the land-based JN-Jenny trainer. The Navy eventually bought 531 of the planes, which flew from armored cruisers and were used to refine naval aviation tactics, eventually leading to the aircraft carrier. The unarmed scout planes served for just 12 years and left service in 1928.

    naval aviation
    Curtiss N-9 seaplane.
    National Air & Space Museum.

    The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, on the other hand, is a multi-role fighter designed for both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Stealthy and featuring a variety of radar and electro-optical sensors, the F-35 is meant to accomplish its mission in the most challenging, heavily defended environments.

    The Navy plans to buy 273 F-35Cs, the carrier takeoff and landing version of the fighter, and fly them for at least 30 years.

    The N-9 and F-35 are the main tactical aircraft in service with the U.S. Navy of their time. Still, they're vastly different aircraft from vastly different time periods, and as such, it’s a bit unfair to compare them on a cost basis.

    grumman f4f wildcat
    A flight of four F-4F Wildcat fighters. The total cost of these four planes is equivalent to the cost of flying a single F-35C for 10 hours.
    KeystoneGetty Images

    For a more appropriate comparison, look to World War II. At the time, the cost of the Navy’s Wildcat fighter was $30,000, or $450,000 in 2020. Compare this to the F-35C's $110 million cost. An Essex-class fleet aircraft carrier costs up to $78 million, or $1.1 billion in 2020. America’s latest carrier, the USS Ford, cost at least $13 billion.

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    But carrier costs haven't just grown—the ratio of aircraft costs to carrier costs has also shrunk. In World War II, the Pentagon could buy 2,600 Wildcat fighters for the cost of one carrier. Today, it could buy only 118 F-35Cs for the price of one Ford-class aircraft carrier. Navy deck crews could roll battle-damaged Wildcat fighters into the ocean, but that’s unthinkable with today’s F-35C.

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    Relatively inexpensive combat drones like the Kratos X-58 Valkyrie will lead to airpower at cheaper prices.
    Kratos Defense

    So how do we make aerial warfare affordable again? Cruise missiles like the Tomahawk are effectively bombers sent on one-way trips, but if you want an aircraft you can use multiple times, drones are our best bet.

    A carrier-based combat drone could cost between $2 and $20 million, partially restoring the carrier-to-fighter price ratio. While that’s not quite a $450,000 Wildcat, it’s a lot less than a fighter jet that costs the equivalent of more than two high schools.

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