September 5, 2011: STRATEGY PAGE
The aging, and constantly upgraded, U.S. Air Force aircraft fleet has gotten a lot more expensive to operate in the last decade. Aging aircraft require more maintenance and rebuilding to remain flyable. Then there are the upgrades, especially engines and electronics, needed to keep the aircraft competitive.
All this can be seen at work with the A-10 ground attack aircraft. In 2001, each hour in the air cost about $11,000 (in current dollars). That includes fuel, weapons, crew and maintainers cost and so on. Last year, it cost $24,000 an hour. The A-10s are getting older, but they also underwent a major upgrade (especially in the electronics area) in the last five years.
The F-16C didn’t undergo a lot of upgrades, and is still being built. Older ones have just been retired. As a result, hourly flying cost was $16,000 a decade ago. Last year it was $19,000. That was one of the few exceptions. The other was the more recently built F-15E fighter-bomber, where costs went from $25,000 an hour to $29,000. The older F-15C fighter went from $24,000 an hour to $37,000.
Bombers showed a slightly different pattern. The mature, and little upgraded, B-1B went from $58,000 an hour to $63,000. The B-2A, beset by technical problems, went from $86,000 an hour to $135,000. The B-52H went from $40,000 an hour to $73,000. Long the cheapest heavy bomber to operate, the half century old, and recently upgraded, B-52 is now more expensive to operate than the B-1B.
Transports and electronic warfare aircraft stayed pretty stable, with a few exceptions. The elderly C-5 went from $38,000 an hour to $49,000. The new C-130J went from $11,000 to $15,000.
The “older is better” award goes to the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. In service for over 60 years, the more recently built U-2S cost $34,000 an hour in 2001, and $28,000 last year.