The cost of each new generation of military aircraft rises exponentially.

Wednesday, March 13th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingIn 1984, Norman Augustine, former Under Secretary of the Army, and CEO of aerospace company Martin Marietta, published a set of “laws” about military procurement, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers):

His most celebrated pearl of wisdom is Augustine’s Law 16, which says that the cost of each new generation of military aircraft rises exponentially.


Although intended facetiously, Augustine’s Law 16 has been remarkably accurate. The North American P-51 Mustang was one of the most important US fighters of WWII. Over fifteen thousand were built, at a cost of around $50,000 each in 1945 dollars ($655,000 in 2014). It was succeeded in the 1950s by the jet-powered F-100 Super Sabre at a cost of $700,000 ($6 million in 2014), ten times as expensive in real terms. The McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom, which first flew in 1960, broke the million-dollar barrier, costing $2.4 million apiece in 1965 ($18 million in 2014), tripling the cost of its predecessor. Even allowing for inflation, the upwards curve is steep.


The USAF’s new F-15 Eagle, also from McDonnell Douglas, was set to replace the F-4. The Eagle was a superb aircraft, but it had reached a new high, costing in excess of $20 million ($45 million in 2014), almost tripling again the cost of its predecessor.


Extensive flying exercises found that the big twin-engine F-15 was only slightly superior to the small, cheap fighters fielded by the Russians in a dogfight. If it came to a war, the small band of F-15s would be overwhelmed by swarms of Russian MiGs. Certainly, the F-15s would be able to knock out plenty of the Russians at long range, but when the survivors closed with them, the contest would be bloody and one-sided.

The Air Force decided to go for a “high-low” mix, supplementing the elite F-15s with a large number of cheaper aircraft known as lightweight fighters. The aircraft selected for the lightweight fighter role was the single-engine F-16 Fighting Falcon, two-thirds the size of the F-15. It was to be the embodiment of a concept by fighter guru John Boyd for an austere aircraft with extreme agility that could beat anything in a dogfight. Being less complex, it would be so cheap it could be acquired in vast numbers. The F-15 with its powerful radar was the champion at long-range combat; the agile F-16 was to be the champion in the “furball” of dogfighting.

During the development process, the purity of the F-16 was slowly corrupted. It became heavier, less agile, and more expensive as more and more capabilities were added.


At $15 million in 1998 dollars ($22 million in 2014), the F-16 was cheaper than the F-15, but more expensive than anything in the previous generation, including the big F-4.


The US Navy went through a parallel experience. They also replaced the F-4 Phantom, and chose the F-14 Tomcat, a $ 38 million (1998 dollars, $ 55 million in 2014) carrier-based fighter. Like the F-15 it had a big radar and impressive long-range capabilities.

Again the F-14 was too pricey to acquire in large quantities, and the Navy took up the idea of bolstering numbers with a smaller, cheaper aircraft. They chose the F-18 Hornet, originally a failed competitor in the Air Force’s lightweight fighter competition. The F-18s costs grew from a planned $5 million to around $29 million (2003 = $37 million in 2014).


  1. Roo_ster says:

    And the F22 is so expensive we could not buy enough to replace all the F15 fighters it was supposed to replace. I suspect a similor replacement ratio for the next-generation fighter. And for the generation after that, we will be able to afford maybe two or three.

  2. Phileas Frogg says:

    Design by committee strikes again. In my experience committees are good at three things, and only three:

    1) Hindering progress
    2) Inflating cost
    3) Deferring accountability

    While a wonderful design choice for those looking to cripple a large national government or parent company from meddling in the affairs of it’s subsidiaries, this is only ever a temporary solution until the committee is railroaded by it’s own neurotic vacillations into irrelevancy, before it’s powers are assumed by an often less than scrupulous executive, who himself can defer accountability back upon the faceless mass of the committee.

    This principle is essentially the systemic reason the US is in a death spiral, from a political perspective.

    And it’s all perfectly demonstrated, by jet design.


  3. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    Perhaps we could persuade Cody Wilson to invent a disruptive CNC machining tech that would allow US states to build simple, functional weapons with short supply chains. Okay, I am half joking, but only half joking. The US needs shorter supply chains, simpler weapons, greater emphasis on reliability and maintainability.

    American inventors used to inspire technicians outside America. Some Americans (e.g. Gordon Dahle) still invent useful, reliable tools that inspire emulation. Dahle’s designs are not entirely foolproof, but they appear to be more robust than a typical fighter jet.

    Of course the devil is in the details. Is it possible to apply this highly robust craftsmanship to a highly demanding product specification, such as an airplane? Bruce Simpson was able to do something comparable in 2003.

    Can the American defense establishment improve its efforts to the level of men like Wilson, Dahle, and Simpson?

  4. David Foster says:

    Norm Augustine also said that the reason military aircraft speeds need to be so high is so that they can complete the mission before the electronics fail.

  5. Fred the Gator says:

    I’m reminded of John Taylor Gatto’s comment about school reform, that it would cost too little to be practical. The livelihood of too many people is invested in the status quo.

    Zuckerman proved this when he tried to reform the Newark school district. Many of his reforms ended up taking money out of the local community (an unintended consequence) because the school district was a major employer.

    And that gets us to the point: you can’t reform the military procurement system because it generates too much money for too many people.

    For an amusing comment on this, see Fred Reed’s book AU PHUC DUP AND NOWHERE TO GO, where he talks about a program to detect the invisible enemy fighters that a lunatic pilot was dogfighting.

  6. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    If it can’t be easily represented on a one page stat sheet, then it can’t be accounted for by a solipsistic bureaucrat, the dominant lifeform of peacetime militaries (and endemic to all spheres of human endeavor in general).

    If use of a specialized metamaterial can allow for 10% more glorpfinning at ten times the cost, then the committee will see this as well worth the price of other people’s money.

    If a certain design arrangement makes serving and repairs impossible without significant time and conscientiousness requirements by technicians operating around well furnished bases, inflating hourly operating costs in any case, well, it won’t even come up in the powerpoint presentation, and if anyone tenders a comment about the issue, it will be forgotten about by the end of the meeting anyways.

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