Sunday, 25 September 2011

How much for the Tomcat?

Sometimes you just want to put together a mercenary air force and take over the world. It's an idea I've had since I was 13 or so, and I've long wondered about the real costs of it. Strike Commander gave me some rough, ballpark figures to start with, and more complex games (notably EVE) have given me a better understanding of the economic complexities of such hardware purchases. But on a whim this weekend, having missed the Joburg Slutwalk due to a sudden call into work on Saturday, I sat down to do some research and look up the prices of modern jet fighters of the last 20 or 30 years (plus a couple only expected to enter service in the next 5 to 10). And it turns out, that's pretty complicated.

Here's a table of the best comparisons I could work out (mostly from Wikipedia, but with occasional deeper searches when something didn't add up very well), but as I'll explain, even this is a terrible over-simplification:
Types: F - conventional fighter
FC - carrier-capable fighter
FV - vertical take-off and landing fighter
Note 1: The Cheetah cost is as a second-hand sale price, not a first-hand production price. I think the same is true of the Kfir cost.
Note 2: The F-16IQ unit cost is definitely wrong, as this is the unit cost of a package deal, including weapons, accessories and spares. No aircraft-only cost was available. I include it only as a place-holder.
If you're not already a bit of a wing nut, then that may not mean an awful lot. But to me, there are a few significant patterns, even in this condensed summary, most of which are common sense. Most dramatic of all is that inflation is a bitch; the older designs are waaaaay cheaper, because the last time anyone paid for them was a decade or more ago, when you could simply get more per US$ than you can now. Consider the F-5, the Kfir and the $8.9M that South Africa sold its old Cheetahs for: These are all relatively ancient planes, and so their price tags, while high when they were new, look tiny now. One clear enough comparison is between the F-14A Tomcat and its replacement 30 years later, the F/A-18F Super Hornet, with roughly the same dimensions and performance, but at 2.5 times the cost.

But the timing of sales is even more complicated than just how old the design is. The Israeli Kfir and the South African Cheetah, both conversions of the Mirage III, are close to identical (the Kfir is marginally better), manufactured around the same time (the Cheetah was a more recent conversion, but converted from Mirage airframes of the same age as those used to make the Kfirs), so their material/technical value should be about the same. But because the Kfirs were sold over a decade earlier, they went for half the cost.

Second-hand planes, like those former SAAF Cheetahs, obviously also go for far less, and Wikipedia mentions a small number of Russian-built MiG-29s and Su-27s, very good designs even if they're older models, going for less than $10M a piece. But that can be a serious false economy, since airframe fatigue (the structure of the plane getting weaker through over-use) is very dangerous and it's usually not considered worth the expense of rejuvenating an old airframe, compared with the price of buying a whole new plane.

But there's also an economy of scale factor: The development cost is the same whether you buy 1 plane or 1,000, and the manufacturer normally has to include that development cost in the unit price one way or another, so large production runs make for cheaper individual planes. A moderately old design, like the F-16, can still be technically quite good and so still in production years later, and the fact that so many have been built means that development costs are spread over a larger number of aircraft, and so the unit cost even for a first-hand plane is relatively low. By comparison, the F-22's unit cost has exploded as the total number of planes ordered has plummeted; a similar phenomenon has pushed the F-35's unit cost up stupidly high too, considering it was supposed to be the lighter, "cheap" sidekick to the F-22.

(I wish I could find the unit cost of those F-16IQs intended for Iraq, to see how it compares against the cost I've got listed for the F-16C it's based on. Researching the costs of bombs and missiles can be a future project, and that would shed some light on what that IQ package is really worth.)

Another unsurprising pattern is that planes intended to do complex things cost more. The carrier-based aircraft are always more expensive than their land-based counterparts, and for some nice, clear examples, look at the MiG-29SMT and MiG-29K, the Rafale C and Rafale M, and the Su-27 and Su-33, all pairs of land fighters and their naval conversions, respectively. (The F-15A and F-14A, reasonably similar in capabilities, demonstrate the same effect too, even though they weren't even manufactured by the same company.) Vertical take-off capability also costs a lot. The Sea Harrier FA.2, for example, is about as old as the F-16C and has a similar price tag, and yet is quite a lot less capable, apart from the vertical landing thing. Even the older F-16A is better than the Sea Harrier in many respects, and yet the price difference between them ain't much. Both of those patterns are clear in the F-35s, where the conventional A-model is the cheapest, the naval C-model costs more and the vertical-landing B-model costs more still.

An interesting point is that Russian planes seem to have gotten far cheaper in recent years. While they used to be roughly the same as their Western equivalents (compare, for example, the F-15A or C with the Su-27, or the F/A-18C with the MiG-29SMT), they're now offering more or less the same capabilities for almost half the price (e.g. Rafale M or F/A-18E vs. Su-33; also F-22 or possibly the Chinese J-20 vs. Su PAK FA). There's always been a claim that Russian/Soviet technology (especially their radar and avionics) was almost always inferior to the Western equivalent, and yet that didn't seem to affect their relative costs much before, so I'm curious why there's been such a sudden, steep plummet. I'm not sure if the Russians are undercutting like crazy just to stay busy, or if they're using slave labour, or if they just have some exchange-rate advantage at the moment. One potentially relevant case was Algeria's returning 15 MiG-29SMTs to the Russian manufacturer for being defective and sub-standard. You almost never see that happening in this industry.

There's also an inherent margin of error in those prices that my table's glossed over. Not only are there different variants of the same fighter (e.g. F-16A and F-16C), but there are sub-types of each of those, and sub-sub-types ("Blocks," in the American parlance), and myriad optional extras, and if you've ever tried to buy a car you'll have some idea of how complicated it can be to compare two cars of apparently the same model, when they've been rigged with a full selection of different options. And this is before we get into external equipment (extra sensors and weapons and such), and before we start looking at how some countries replace sub-systems in their imported planes with locally-made alternatives. At a wild guess, I imagine that even if my table was corrected for inflation and purchasing power, you'd still get a variance in unit cost for each plane of perhaps ±10%. As an extreme example, the Black Hawk family of helicopters seems to have a price range all the way from US$5.9M to US$10.2M, depending on which bells and whistles you want; helicopters are usually much more modular than fighters, though, since they care less about staying aerodynamic and fast.

Unfortunately, even if I had the exact maths to adjust for all of those considerations, I'd still have trouble accurately ranking those fighters by a common cost scale, since these are built and sold by private companies, who are free to make their prices up as they go along, and while they might plummet the price to under-cut the competition in one case, they'll happily inflate it to raise their profit on exactly the same product in another case. A fine example of this is the Gripen. The SAAF (and therefore the South African public) has clearly been ripped off, because while the Gripen is a decent, modern plane, it is by no means the very best, even in its (very, very lightweight) class. It's a great aerobatic plane, but it just can't carry much or fly very far.

In 2008, Sweden was buying them for US$30M each, and while exported fighters usually cost more, that at least gives us a sense of what Saab considers the "basic" sales price of the Gripen, probably quite close to the manufacturing cost. Outside of Sweden, the price has been roughly double that, up to about US$68.9M in a 2002 bid to Poland that was ultimately won by the F-16C, with the cheapest foreign unit cost I could find being a 2007 hire-purchase of second-hand Gripens by Hungary for US$54M each. The SAAF Gripens, on the other hand, have a unit cost closer to US$90M, which was settled on way back in 1998. Because we're stupid.

The difference seems to be that in Hungary (and Poland), there was serious competition from Lockheed's F-16 (perhaps because Lockheed already has a lot of European/NATO F-16 customers, so they stand to make more there on maintenance and upgrades if they can sell those services as a shared group discount package), so Saab had to make a deal and take a "loss" (on planes they'd already sold to Sweden once). In South Africa, it was much easier for BAE Systems (acting as a subcontractor of Saab) to just bribe a bunch of our government officials, as Saab has now admitted, blocking out any other competitors and leaving Saab free to charge us as much for the Gripen as we'd pay for a far more capable aircraft, like the F-16E, F/A-18E or Rafale. Hell, for US$90M a pop, we could have carrier-capable planes without sacrificing anything else. And if we'd gone to the Russians, we could have had all that twice over. If our government officials weren't bribed, then they were incredibly shitty hagglers. Even if you want to argue that we needed some new fighters (and I wouldn't argue that at all), it's clear that we fucked up the purchase.

So the bottom line is this: If you want to start a mercenary fighter squadron, take your time, shop around, let the manufacturers know they'll have to compete for your business, buy in bulk as much as you can (both to help push down the unit cost and because you never know when your supply of spare parts might be cut off in the future) and don't take fucking kickbacks.

Oh, and to answer the question in the title, you probably can't have any Tomcats. Apart from a small number in museum collections, the US literally shredded all the ones they had, just so that none of their components could be smuggled to Iran, the only other Tomcat operator in the world, despite the fact that the US has blocked Iran's access to F-14 spare parts since 1979. If Iran can still put an estimated 20-odd Tomcats in the air after 30 years without spares, then I doubt they really, urgently need what the Americans shredded, but what's done is done. (And you're unlikely to get any of the Iranian Tomcats any time soon either; they seem to rely on aircraft cannibalism and local substitutes to keep any going at all, and if they keep that up, they could well have up to 10 still flying in another decade.)

[Edit, 23/11/2011: More details are now available on the Iraqi F-16IQ purchase. It seems they were offered French Mirage F1s as another option, at US$55 million a piece, and this is described as roughly a quarter the cost of the F-16s, so the US$233 million in my table above, while insanely above the cost of any other F-16, is probably correct. It's worth noting that, while Iraq initially cancelled the F-16IQ purchase on the basis that they had to buy food for almost a fifth of their population instead, they have now pressed ahead with the deal anyway (the Iraqi people weren't hungry after all?), still opting for the insanely priced F-16 over the cheaper Mirage. And I thought South Africa's Gripen purchase was a prime example of deeply unethical government corruption.]