Critics have long decried the staggering cost of the F-35 Lightning II stealth jet, which is projected to cost more than $1.5 trillion over the lifetime of the program. But the fifth-generation multirole aircraft, which currently costs about $100 million per unit, may end up looking like a real bargain by the time the next generation of fighters comes along. According to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office, the next air-superiority fighter could cost about $300 million per unit.
The sky-high price tag for the new jet, dubbed the Penetrating Counter Air, or PCA, is based on two factors, CBO said. First, the PCA will likely improve upon the current generation’s capabilities when it comes it comes to range, payload and stealth. And second, given the experience with the B-2, F-22 and F-35 projects, developing those new capabilities will take more time and money than anyone currently expects.
The as-yet undesigned fighter would replace hundreds of F-15 C/D and F-22 fighters that currently handle the lion’s share of the air superiority mission for the Air Force. Current projections call for purchasing 414 PCA aircraft starting in 2028, with the jet entering service in 2030 – though the CBO notes that, “In light of the long development times associated with F-22s and F-35s … that projection of the PCA aircraft’s delivery schedule may be optimistic.”
Given the high price and likely delays in the PCA’s development, CBO says that the Air Force could end up looking for a cheaper alternative in the 2030s. It wouldn’t have to go far: “the Air Force could decide that the PCA aircraft’s cutting-edge design is unaffordable and instead opt to purchase more F-35As.” Buying hundreds more F-35s in place of the PCA could save billions of dollars per year, the report said, with a peak annual savings on procurement of about $6 billion in 2033.