The F-35 program is justified on two grounds:

  1. F-22 is too expensive (similar to F-16 being the cheaper alternative to F-15)
  2. F-35 can be used by AF (F-35A), Marines (F-35B) and Navy (F-35C) (similar to F-4)

However, both F-22 and F-35 appear to cost ~$150M per unit (cf. $15M for F-16 vs. $30M for F-15), and F-22 seems to be more capable.

So, why does the Air Force buy F-35A when it can get an F-22 for the same price? (I understand why the Marines and the Navy want it).



Pricing military aircraft isn't a simple matter. The initial cost of research and development (R&D) is often quite large, relative to the additional cost of purchasing the fleet of aircraft. In typical consumer markets (e.g. automobiles), the R&D cost is usually defrayed over many, many more units.

So, to compare costs, you need to decide whether you are burdening the cost of each aircraft with a pro-rated R&D cost. The F-35 is planned to be purchased in much greater quantities than F-22, so the R&D is defrayed over more planes.

Roughly $150M (marginal cost) per additional plane might be a reasonable number for each aircraft. Here's another source to justify that figure. I've certainly seen numbers that look a bit higher for F-22 than F-35A.

Here's the key, though: the military does not buy planes simply based on the "purchase price", nor should they. The lifecycle costs to acquire, maintain, replace, train pilots and crew on, and deploy military aircraft are huge. Any sane cost needs to include these, along with the R&D and fly-away cost. From the Wired article:

“Lifecycle cost” adds up the price of fuel, spare parts and maintenance during the jet’s projected 40-year lifespan. The Government Accountability Office estimates it will cost $59 billion to fix and fly the F-22s until they retire. If you add unit cost and per-plane lifecycle cost, you get the total amount the United States spends to design, produce and operate a single Raptor: a whopping $678 million.

F-35 lifecycle plus unit cost, assuming nothing else goes wrong? $469 million, according to Air Force figures quoted by the GAO.

So, the F-35 is expected to be notably less expensive, when you add it all up. This was a major design goal for F-35 (JSF) from the start. It was designed to be easier to maintain. F-22 was designed during a Skunk Works era, where maximum performance was always the top priority.

Civilians are not used to performing life cycle analyses on their purchases like this, but they certainly should be. In this respect, the military actually is a more savvy consumer (as strange as I know that sounds!).


Another major design goal of F-35 was to promote commonality between the aircraft purchased by each service (e.g. Air Force, Navy, Marines). F-35 starts to address that problem. F-22 does not. It shares virtually nothing with aircraft from other services. This is a logistics problem for the Dept. of Defense, and they recognize that.

Information Systems

Next, although it's easy to look at mechanical specs for the F-22, and say that it's as good, or better, than an F-35, we're not fighting the Soviet Union any more (with comparable MiGs and Sukhoi jets). Warfare is now more about information, and in general, a newer program is going to have newer, better software systems. Think in computing terms ... what kind of computers did you use when F-22 was designed?


Finally, at present, the F-22 production run has stopped and the factories have already been taken offline. So, there's a manufacturing hurdle that would be required to get F-22 production ramped up again, and that's not cheap for such a program.

  • While this is a very good and insightful analysis, I completely disagree with the notion of including already-sunk R&D costs in lifetime cost estimates of 2 planes that were both already developed and designed; and you are choosing between the two NOW. Do you mind offering a comparison that factors out the amortization of past R&D costs? It should still win on F35 but by lesser margin
    – user4012
    Aug 1 '13 at 18:52
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    @DVK, As I already said in my answer (edited to be clearer), and is listed in the OP's wikipedia links, $150M is the rough figure for marginal cost of each new plane. The Wired article I link to (2 yrs old) estimates it's closer to $137M vs $110M (F22/F35A). This does not include past R&D. Regarding your larger point about sunk cost accounting, that's a bogus argument here. If you'd like an explanation as to why, please email me directly (see my user page). I simply can't fit a proper response in comments, and the validity of your assertion is really more an economics issue, not politics.
    – Nate
    Aug 1 '13 at 20:45

There has been a study made recently of rebooting F22 production. The findings were that it would be too expensive to restart the production lines (some believe the answer was already decided before the study started).

Also, keep in mind that the F22 really only addresses the USAF's needs. For better or worse (mostly worse IMHO), the F-35 is the only game in town for the Navy or Marines. Not to mention the Royal Navy, with their F35-only "carriers". F22 are (currently) also legally prohibited from being exported, so it would leave the US's allies with no choice but to buy elsewhere.

Last, while the F35 is (rightly) very controversial, the F22 program only really looks good in comparison. In the early 2000s, the F22 also had many detractors, for cost overruns, technological issues and even design choices such as having limited ground attack capabilities.

Ref: http://www.defense-aerospace.com/articles-view/release/3/190787/f_22-restart-would-cost-over-%2450-billion%3A-usaf.html but any Googling of restart F22 production 2018 will get you a ton of hits.


This information mostly comes from the Wikipedia article to which you linked in your question.

First, as with any answer about why a government does something, corruption or incompetence can always be answers. There's not necessarily a good reason why the government might be purchasing F-35s instead of relying on existing military hardware.

However, the F-35 does have certain advantages over existing military hardware. For example, unlike the F-16 or F-22, the F-35B is capable of Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL). Though the F-35 is unable to exceed the F-22s maximum speed, we aren't really dogfighting in Afghanistan, and even Stinger missiles can match the F-22s maximum speed. The SR-71 was designed to outrun surface-to-air missiles, but given the speed of modern missiles, and given that the F-22 doesn't outpace them, it doesn't seem like this is a relevant design goal in modern times.

According to the wikipedia article, the F-35 isn't really intended to replace the F-22, but rather the F-16, over which it has advantages in "stealth, payload, range on internal fuel, avionics, operational effectiveness, supportability, and survivability".

In short, there are technical reasons why the air force may want F-35s.

  • why not replace f16s with f22s?
    – sds
    Aug 1 '13 at 4:08
  • Because they think F-35s are more suited to that task. I'm not sure I understand the question. They're different planes and the F-35s have some unique advantages the air force may be prioritizing. But again, you can't assume that people are acting rationally here. I provided some reasons why the USAF might wanted F-35s. That doesn't mean F-35s are definitely the best option for them.
    – Publius
    Aug 1 '13 at 4:24
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    @Avi, you should just remove the second paragraph. The last sentence is contradicted by the rest of your answer. Without any supporting explanation, the first sentence just seems trollish.
    – Nate
    Aug 2 '13 at 1:29
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    @Avi, you're not responding to other questions. You're responding to this question. And this question is not asking about something irrational The Government does. This decision is entirely rational, and some of your answer explains why. Thus, that explanation isn't even internally consistent with the general statement about corruption/incompetence. But again, the bigger issue is that you just throw out that statement, providing zero support for it.
    – Nate
    Aug 2 '13 at 10:41
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    @Avi, the OP made no such assumption. He simply asked "why?". The answer could have been that there was some rational reason, or it could have been that there was corruption. If there was corruption in this case, then you should explain why you think so. If not, remove it. Your answer is like someone asking what color the sky is today, and you answering that it could always be gray, even though today, it's blue. It's simply not a rational argument, and as you've written it, I consider it slanderous and offensive. -1.
    – Nate
    Aug 2 '13 at 21:02

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