The ten most expensive military aircraft ever built

Laura Thomson 30 May 2019 (Last Updated January 29th, 2020 10:39)

An increase in the demand for state-of-the-art aircraft capabilities has caused costs to rise for military aircraft, resulting in cancelled projects and production cuts. From Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit to Chengdu’s J-20 Black Eagle and Air Force One, Airforce-Technology.com lists the world’s ten most expensive military aircraft to have ever been built.

The ten most expensive military aircraft ever built
Advanced computer processing systems onboard the aircraft enable innovative manoeuvrability and control, eliminating piloting errors and lethal stalling. Credit: Staff Sgt Bennie J Davis III / USAF.

Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit – $2.1bn

The Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit is a US Air Force (USAF) heavy-penetration stealth bomber launched in 1989. The aircraft can infiltrate complex and dense air-defence shields, while it is capable of all-altitude attack operations up to 50,000ft.

B-2’s original unit cost was $737m, making it the most expensive aircraft ever built. However, due to retrofitting and adjustments in 1997, its overall cost now stands at $2.1bn. It costs $135,000/hr to operate.

B-2 has two main defences to protect it against radar detection, including its costly stealth coating known as ‘alternate high-frequency material’ and its continuous curvature design.

A total of $60m in general upgrades are carried out on each aircraft every seven years.

B-2 Spirit travels up to 628mph, has a length of 69ft, a width of 172ft, and height of 16ft. It has a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 170,600kg and features four General Electric F118-GE-110 turbofans (non-afterburning) with 17,300lb of thrust.

The aircraft has a flight range of 11,100km and a 3,000ft/min climb rate. The two-pilot stealth bomber is able to carry 40,000lb of weapons.

Air Force One – $660m

Air Force One is the name for the two Boeing VC-25’s that transport the US president. The planes are highly modified military versions of the Boeing 747-200, featuring advanced communications and air defence capabilities.

The Boeing VC-25s began service in 1990 and have a unit cost of $325m, with both aircraft amounting to around $660m to produce. Both aircraft cost up to $206,000/hr to fly.

VC-25 has an MTOW of 374,850kg and is powered by four General Electric CF6-80C2B1 engines, each producing 56,700lbs of thrust to reach a top speed of 629mph. The aircraft is able to fly at 45,100ft and has an in-flight distance ability of 13,000km. The maximum distance is extended considerably by the VC-25’s in-flight refuelling features.

VC-25s are 231.96ft long, 195.54ft wide and 63.32ft high.

The aircraft deploys flares to counteract heat-seeking missiles, while it is fitted with electronic countermeasures (ECM) radar-jamming technology.

It has been reported by CNBC that Boeing will build two replacement presidential aircraft (747-8), which will cost around $3.9bn and be mission-ready in 2024.

F-22 Raptor – $350m

The F-22 Raptor is considered to be one of the most highly advanced fighter jets. It is built by Lockheed Martin and Boeing for around $350m per aircraft ($143m unit cost). The total programme cost is around $66bn.

The aircraft was unveiled in 1997, but gained full operational capability by the USAF in 2005. It is fitted with fifth-generation technology and combines supercruise, super manoeuvrability, stealth, and sensor fusion in a single-weapons platform. It is 62ft long, 16.7ft high, and 44.5ft wide. The aircraft has a weight of 43,340lb and an MTOW of 83,500lb. The F-22 has a 2,960km range and a 62,000km/min rate of climb.

F-22’s all-aspect stealth capability makes detection difficult for enemy aircraft. The jet’s Northrop Grumman’s AN/APG-77 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar technology and engineered airframe reduces the aircraft’s visibility. It decreases enemy radar recognition using agile frequency beams.

“The F-22 Raptor is considered to be one of the most highly advanced fighter jets.”

Pratt and Whitney F119-100 engines allow the F-22 to reach ‘supercruise’ speeds of Mach 1.82 when carrying a full load of weapons and without using an afterburner.

T last F-22 was delivered in May 2012. The F-22 Raptor is no longer being produced due to high production costs and maintenance difficulties. There are also concerns surrounding outdated 1980s airframe designs and the availability of the cheaper and more adaptable F-35 fighter jet.

However, in 2017, the USAF highlighted its plans to fly the F-22 until 2060.

Nationalinterest.org has noted that budget cuts and F-35 upgrades will challenge the future progress of the F-22 in terms of technology. However, it indicated that the Raptor is still the ‘most capable air superiority fighter flying’ today.

C-17 Globemaster III – $328m

The Boeing C-17 Globemaster III is a military transport aircraft used to carry equipment, personnel and vehicles. It was originally designed for the USAF, but is now used in many airforces across the world, including the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), India, and Kuwait. It is also used in the international Nato Heavy Airlift Wing in Hungary.

C-17 entered service in January 1995 and is jointly manufactured by McDonnell Douglas and Boeing Defense, Space and Security. Its flyaway cost is around $218m, but its estimated total cost over the lifetime of the aircraft’s programme is $328m-$368m.

C-17 is renowned for its high reliability and maintainability, measuring 174ft long and having a 169ft 10in wingspan.

Each of the four Pratt and Whitney F117-PW-100 turbofan engines power the aircraft with a 40,440lb thrust. The C-17’s large aft ramp and door system enables heavy loading of airforce equipment, while the aircraft is designed to carry and airdrop 102 paratroopers.

Globemaster’s maximum payload capacity is 170,900lb and its MTOW is 585,000lb. It has a service ceiling of 45,000ft at cruising speed, an unrefuelled range of around 4,482km (10,390km with paratroopers) and a cruise speed of 450k.

After 25 years of production, the company produced its last Globemaster in February 2015 and delivered it to the Qatar Emiri Airforce in 2016.

However, the C-17 fleet’s planned service-life is not due to end until the 2030s. However, Foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com said that it is highly likely that the aircraft will have its service extended due to its versatile heavy-lifting capabilities.

P-8A Poseidon – $290m

The P-8A Poseidon is a militarised version of the Boeing 737-800ERX. It has been produced by Boeing for the US Navy and has an overall procurement cost of around $290m per aircraft. India, Australia, the UK, and Norway are current users of the P-8A, while South Korea purchased six of the aircraft in September 2018.

The aircraft conducted its first flight in April 2009 and was introduced to the US Navy in November 2013. The P-8A detects and attacks hostile submarines and has the capacity to perform electronic support measures, including early-warning self-protection, shipping interdiction, and anti-surface / anti-submarine warfare. It also features radar-guided air-launched missiles for combat.

The aircraft has a cruise speed of approximately 926km/hr and can travel 60m over the sea at speeds of 333km/hr. It has two CFM International CFM56-7B27A high-bypass turbofan engines, each with 27,000lb of thrust and 180kVA power generators.

P-8A is 129.5ft-long, has a height of 42.1ft, and a wingspan of 123.6ft. Its MTOW is 189,200lb, while it can fly at maximum heights of 41,000ft. It has a ferry range of 7,242km.

On 19 March 2019, the US Department of Defense awarded Boeing with a $326m contract to upgrade the P-8A aircraft. Modifications will include development, integration and testing of Increment 3 Block 2 systems on the US Navy and Australian Government planes.

VH-71 Kestrel – $241m

The VH-71 Kestrel was a variation of the AgustaWestland AW101 and was manufactured by Lockheed Martin, Bell Helicopter, and AugustaWestland to replace the US Marine Corps’ Marine One presidential transport fleet (Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King).

The aircraft took its first flight in July 2007 after several delays, cost overruns and engineering issues, including extensive modifications requested by the US Government.

However, the project was cancelled in June 2009 after overall costs for the planned 28 helicopters increased to $13bn. In June 2011, the helicopters were sold to Canada for $164m to be used as spare parts for the AgustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant search-and-rescue aircraft.

With an ability to carry four crew members, it featured three significantly robust General Electric CT7-8E turboshaft engines with 1,879kW of take-off power. The aircraft was 64.14ft long, 61ft wide, 21.72ft high, and had an MTOW of 34,392lb.

VH-71 reached a maximum speed of 193mph and had a 1,400km range. Its rate of climb was 2,010ft/min.

Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye – $232m

The E-2 Hawkeye was first developed by the Grumman Aircraft Company (now Northrop Grumman) for the US Navy in the late 1950s. It took its first flight in October 1960 and is also currently used by Taiwan, Mexico, Japan, France, and Egypt.

The twin-turboprop aircraft features an all-weather, carrier-capable tactical airborne early warning (AEW) system, which enables the US Navy to carry out advanced battle management command and control capabilities.

In August 2007, the $232m E-2D Advanced Hawkeye flew for the first time and featured many technological upgrades, including the ability to communicate and coordinate with all littoral, overland, and open-sea vessels. Upgrades also included electronic and mechanical active scan radars (APY-9).

“The E-2D aircraft features a fully integrated all-glass tactical cockpit, advanced mission computers and tactical workstations.”

The E-2D aircraft features a fully integrated all-glass tactical cockpit, advanced mission computers and tactical workstations, electronic support measures enhancements, as well as a modernised communications and data link suite. The latest version of the aircraft is fitted with a flight management system and two Allison / Rolls-Royce T56-A-427A turboprop engines (3,800kW).

The aircraft is 57ft long, has an 80ft wingspan, and is around 18ft high. It has a 57,500lb MTOW and can travel at a maximum speed of 402mph. The E-2 Hawkeye carries a crew of five, has a 2,708km ferry range, a service ceiling of around 34,700ft, and a 2,515ft/min rate of climb.

Transformational aerial refuelling capabilities are being added to current and newly built E-2Ds, which will increase its mission time to seven hours and double its time allowed at the station to five hours. These will begin to be delivered in late-2020.

F-35 Lightning II – $115.5m

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II fighter jets are built as part of the 1996 Joint Strike Fighter programme and were introduced in December 2006 (F-35A). The aircraft are produced by Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Pratt and Whitney, and BAE Systems.

The F-35 aircraft is used in several countries, including the US, Australia, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Turkey, and UK.

There are three variations of the F-35 Lighting aircraft, including the F-35A ($89.2m), F-35B ($115.5m), and the F-35C ($107.7m). Each aircraft averages at around $35,000/hr to operate, while the overall programme costs across its 50-year lifetime are expected to increase to $1.5tn, making it one of the most expensive military acquisition schemes.

The fifth-generation advanced multirole strike fighter jet features advanced stealth technology and a state-of-the-art 360° sensor system for unparalleled disruption of attacks.

The multirole aircraft is fitted with one of the most powerful integrated sensor packages and very low-observable (VLO) stealth technology to enable it to carry out superior air-to-air, air-to-ground, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations.

Electronic warfare (EW) systems prevent the F-35 from being detected by radars that other jets are unable to avoid. Compared to legacy aircraft, it has a smaller radar cross-section (RCS), which means that it is less easily detected and can take action before it is picked up by enemy radars.

The three variations differ slightly in specifications, however, they measure around 50.5ft-51.4ft in length and have a 15ft-15.5ft height. F-35A and F-35B feature a 35ft wingspan, while the F-35C has a 43ft width. It weighs around 22,500lb-30,000lb and has an MTOW of 60,000lbs. Its Pratt and Whitney F135 F119-PW-100 turbofan engine develops 40,000lb of thrust (with afterburner), enabling it to travel at around 1,200mph. It delivers a range of up to 1,864mph with a service ceiling of around 50,000ft. The F-35 has a 45,000ft/min rate of climb.

In April 2019, a Japanese F-35A crashed into the Pacific Ocean after experiencing cooling and navigation system issues during training, raising serious questions about the aircraft’s reliability and security.

A US Marine Corps’ F-35B also crashed seven months earlier. RT.com revealed that Japan’s fleet has been forced to make seven emergency landings in two years. In addition, the Independent reported that the F-35 programme ‘has been plagued with delays and design setbacks over several years’.

However, after interviewing F-35 pilots, Air &Space Magazine recently expressed the aircraft’s superior survivability capabilities and its low-detectability in comparison to legacy aircraft. japantimes.co.jp also noted that, despite issues with ejector seats and software, it has a strong safety record, with only two crashes since 2006.

Following the US F-35B crash, Lockheed Martin also reassured its customers of the aircraft’s safety record in October 2018 and pointed to the fact that new capabilities and software updates have been added to fix the majority of critical deficiencies.

Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey – $118m

The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey is a multirole combat aircraft featuring a tiltrotor system. It carried out its first flight in March 1989, but crashes during flight testing and unstable funding resulted in several delays until 2007 when the aircraft entered service in the US Marine Corps. The USAF fielded its version of the aircraft (CV-22B) in 2009 and the US Navy plans to use the CMV-22B variant in 2021.

The V-22 is currently owned by the US and Japan, with possible sales to other countries such as Israel in the future. V-22 costs around $118m per aircraft ($70m-$100m unit cost) and has an overall programme amounts to approximately $35.6bn. It costs $11,000/hr to operate.

V-22 features the unique ability to takeoff and land vertically in a similar way to a helicopter but with the range, speed and MTOW of a fixed-wing aircraft.

“V-22 is around $118m per aircraft ($70m-$100m unit cost) and has an overall programme cost of approximately $35.6bn.”

The aircraft is fitted with two three-blade propeller systems and two Rolls-Royce AE1107C engines with 6,150shp (4,586kW). It has a 57.3ft length, 84.65ft width, and 22.08ft height. The aircraft weighs 33,069lb and has an MTOW of 52,600lb. V-22 can travel up to 316mph and has a 1,627km range. It can reach an altitude of 25,000ft and has a 3,160ft/min rate of climb. V-22 aircraft can carry four crew members and up to 24 personnel.

The V-22 uses Raytheon AN / APQ-186 terrain-following multimode radars and a Raytheon AN / AAQ-16 forward-looking infrared (FLIR) helicopter night-vision system.

Despite its controversial history of crashes relating to its landing capabilities in harsh conditions and its heavy tilt-rotor design, the V-22 programme recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and reached 450,000 flight hours in March 2019. According to Bell’s V-22 vice president Chris Gehler, it is the ‘most sought after aircraft by combatant commanders’ and a total of 375 Ospreys have been built.

Chengdu J-20 Black Eagle – $110m

The Chengdu J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’ is a fifth-generation, single-seat, stealth fighter aircraft made by China’s Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. Following its earlier maiden flight in January 2011, it has been deployed in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force since March 2017 and is China’s first stealth aircraft.

J-20s costs around $110m each, while overall programme expenses are estimated to be around $4.4bn.

Armament includes long-range PL-12C/D and PL-21 air-to-air missiles (AAM), as well as internal cannons for close-range combat operations and PL-10 short-range AAMs. It is also equipped with laser-guided and drop bombs, in addition to air-to-surface and anti-radiation missiles.

J-20 is designed to carry out ground attack missions in hostile environments and reaches high altitudes of around 59,055ft at supersonic speeds of approximately 1,305mph. It has a 60,000ft/min rate of climb and a 2,100km/hr range. Two WS-10G turbofan engines each produce 30,000lb of thrust with the use of afterburners.

The Chinese fighter jet is 75.46ft long and 49.21ft wide. It has a 16.40ft height and weighs 38,801lb, while its MTOW is around 77,162lb. The J-20 is fitted with fire control and engine management systems, as well as electronically scanned array (AESA) radars to quickly detect and attack targets.