More Like $355 Million Per Plane, but Who’s Counting?

Today’s New York Times reports:

Two of President-elect Barack Obama’s stated goals — cutting wasteful spending and saving or creating millions of jobs — are on a collision course in a looming decision over whether to keep building the F-22 fighter jet.

That is a dubious claim. The predicted job losses associated with allowing the F-22 program to come to an end are exaggerated, and insignificant when compared against the many other jobs in our $13 trillion economy. Yes, some people currently employed manufacturing F-22s might have to find new work, but these workers should not receive special treatment; military necessity, not politics, should drive our decisions on what military hardware to buy. By that standard, the F-22 program should be terminated because the plane is ill-suited to the types of missions that the U.S. military is likely to undertake.

But the more egregious error pertains to the Times’s use of Air Force and industry estimates for per unit F-22 costs going forward. “Supporters of the F-22 program…argue that Mr. Obama should extend its production, at least temporarily, to preserve thousands of jobs related to building the jets, which cost $143 million each.” (my emphasis)

The actual per unit costs of each F-22 can be compiled from other figures cited in the story. To date, the F-22 program has cost taxpayers $65 billion, and has delivered 183 aircraft. My calculator doesn’t do real well with so many zeroes, but that comes out to more than $355 million – making the F-22 the most expensive fighter aircraft in history.

The Air Force contends that it is unfair to translate all of the program’s research and development costs into the price tag of the newest planes rolling off the assembly lines. According to this creative accounting, the “flyaway” costs of prospective purchases, which essentially write off program R&D as sunk costs, will range between $176.8 million and $216.3 million per aircraft. This assumes, however, that this next stage of F-22 production will not encounter any of the cost growth that has plagued the program from the very beginning. At every stage of its development, actual F-22 costs have exceeded projections. Even the flyaway estimates have proved woefully inaccurate. (In 1986, the Air Force estimated F-22 flyaway costs at $35 million.) When weighing the prospects of additional F-22 purchases, it seems prudent to assume that the plane will cost much more than its supporters want you to believe.

If President-elect Obama is serious about cutting wasteful spending, the F-22 is a pretty good place to start. The contention about jobs saved or lost is a red herring. So-called military Keynesianism might have been popular in the 1960s, but subsequent research has shown that expecting to stimulate the economy through military spending is a bad bet.