If the contract is worth some $5 billion to buy 32 of the fighters, how much does one aircraft cost?
It depends, not surprisingly, on how you count it. Estimating the cost of a single F-35, a stealthy multirole fighter, is not as simple as dividing the contract amount by the number of aircraft being bought. "[T]hat doesn't mean the cost of each jet is at least $156 million, which is the mean," aerospace reporter Steve Trimble writes in Flight International's DEW Line blog. "That number also includes production costs not associated with the flyaway price of the aircraft, such as extra tooling."
Since details of the contract have not been released yet, it's hard to say for certain what the precise amount might be, but previous reports have pegged the per-aircraft cost at more than $100 million, but how much more is very hard to say. In April, however, a consultant for defense companies who also runs the nonprofit Lexington Institute called press reports that the fighter would cost over $133 million "ridiculous."
Instead, he said it would end up at about $60 million, a number that was itself ridiculed by some aerospace writers.
The consultant, Loren Thompson, argued that the price tag of the new fighter should be given as a "unit recurring flyaway" cost, which includes only the cost of producing the aircraft, but does not include what are called nonrecurring costs, meaning the hefty amounts spent on research and development to build the basic technology. Thompson argued that this was a better way of providing cost estimates, since it essentially represents what the Pentagon is paying for each additional aircraft.
But even the Pentagon has since come up with higher costs than $60 million, or even $100 million. "As of June, the Pentagon estimates the average per-unit cost to be $108.7 million, an 84 percent increase (averaging the price of all the conventional, carrier and short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variants)," reports the aerospace publication Aviation Week & Space Technology. "Procurement acquisition unit cost is estimated at $132 million, an increase of 82 percent."
Estimating aircraft costs can get even more complicated, because not everyone agrees on what the total costs are likely to be over the life of the program. In addition to those costs agreed upon by the company and the contracting office, there are also estimates that are used to determine what the aircraft will cost over the life of the program.
One thing that might make a difference in price is that the newly concluded contract is "firm fixed price," which is part of a broader move by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to keep escalating weapons costs under control. But whether that new contract helps bring costs under control is hard to say, since it still leaves open the question of how much the aircraft is costing the Pentagon.
In other words, the final per-aircraft cost is likely to remain a subject of controversy for some time to come.