From total program and per-unit costs, to research and development and overall lifetime expenditures, determining the true price tag of military craft can be tricky.
Often, when everything’s included, the “true cost” of designing, acquiring, and maintaining military machines is many times higher than the unwitting public is led to believe.
These days, major program’s budgets are often measured in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.
The F-35 Lightning for example has been dragged through the proverbial mud in recent years because it cost more than $300 billion to develop.
Though its overall development cost was less than the Lightning’s, with a whopping price tag of nearly $14 billion, the US Navy’s new aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford takes the top spot as the world’s most expensive military craft.
But since we’ve already covered the Ford extensively in the video “World’s Most Powerful Engines,” we’ll skip over it here and proceed with a few other monumentally expensive military craft of note.
1. Virginia-Class Submarines
Designed and built by General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls Industries in Newport News, Virginia, the nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines are the US Navy’s newest and most advanced undersea warfare platforms, and with a price approaching $3 billion per unit, the most expensive as well.
By some estimates more than 30 million man-hours went into designing the subs.
Construction takes another 10 million, with parts and systems coming from approximately 4,000 suppliers.
Each Virginia-class boat features the latest in advanced weaponry, stealth, and intelligence gathering technology, and is capable of operating in both open ocean and relatively shallow coastal environments.
The 377 foot (115 m) subs displace nearly 9,000 tons fully submerged, and are manned by a crew of 120 sailors and 15 officers.
Though each hull’s integrity is tested to at least 800 feet (240 m), unconfirmed rumors suggest that they’re true crush depth – that at which the hull implodes – may be twice as deep.
Main propulsion comes from a single General Electric S9G pressure water reactor capable of generating more than 40,000 shaft horsepower – enough to propel the craft to nearly 30 mph (50 km/h) when submerged.
And like other nuclear-powered vessels with nearly unlimited range, their mission time is only restricted by restocking and maintenance issues that can’t be attended to at sea.
Though the original Virginia-class subs are true heavyweights in their own right, even bigger and more lethal variants will also be produced, the largest of which is the Block V.
Block V subs will be fitted with additional 84-foot hull sections housing 4 large-diameter launch tubes, each capable of holding 7 Tomahawk cruise missiles, which in conjunction with the 12 in the bow bring the total payload to 40.
Though primarily used for weapons delivery, the Block V’s versatile tubes can also deploy SEAL teams and launch unmanned undersea vehicles for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering purposes.
Boats also carry an impressive array of Mark-48 torpedoes, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and even nuclear weapons – a relatively new development.
Whereas previous subs were designed for specific roles like fast attack, precision strike and fleet protection, the Virginia-class boats are much more versatile.
In other words, they’re true multi-mission machines designed to do many different jobs.
But according to some industry insiders, for the one-size-fits-all approach to work, traditional naval doctrine will have to be turned upside down – and it won’t happen overnight.
It won’t be cheap either, because training costs and ship complexity have increased at an alarming pace.
Like it is with 5th generation military aircraft, stealth is a big issue with subs.
Their very survival largely depends on evading detection, and to that end the Virginia-class’ designers incorporated what the acronym-happy Navy refers to as an Acoustic Superiority Program, or ASP.
In short, the subs are supposed to hear better and operate more silently than their adversaries.
But cost-conscious detractors claim that the Navy’s costs are increasing too rapidly, and that the number of vessels deployed will invariably dwindle.
Also, multi-role craft tend not to do any one particular thing very well, like in the case of the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle and the General Dynamics F-111.
Nonetheless, of the original 66 orders placed more than a decade ago,19 of the Virginia-class boats have been completed and nearly a dozen more are under construction.
They’ll continue to be built and delivered until the early 2040s, at which time they’ll take the place of the Los Angeles-class subs that preceded them, nearly three dozen of which are still in use.
2. Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit
When it made its debut in 1989, the US Air Force’s Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit heavy penetration stealth bomber made serious waves.
But development began years earlier during the Carter administration under the Air Force’s Advanced Technology Bomber Project.
Initial performance projections were so impressive that the President cancelled development of the supersonic B-1 bomber, though unforeseen B-2 delays led to its reinstatement later on.
Though capable of infiltrating state-of-the-art air defense systems and carrying out precision bombing missions at various altitudes up to 50,000 feet (15,240 m), each B-2 came with a whopping price just north of $2 billion.
Original cost was projected at just $730 million, but like many massive military programs, delays, cost overruns, last-minute design changes and runaway inflation more than doubled the price.
With a length of 69 feet (21 m) and a wingspan of 170 feet (50 m), fully laden B-2s tipping the scales at 388,000 pounds (176,000 kg) are capable of attaining speeds in excess of 600 mph (1,000 km/h), thanks to their 4 General Electric turbo fan engines which produce more than 17,000 pounds of thrust each.
B-2s are able to carry up to 40,000 pounds (18,000 kgs) of conventional or nuclear weapons, but it’s their stealth that truly sets them apart from other heavy bombers.
Sporting one of the most advanced designs in aviation, hefty B-2s are essentially tailless flying wedges, and they’re particularly adept at flying undetected through enemy radar due to their abundant curves and radar absorbent skin.
They’re also able to fly more than 6,000 nautical miles without refueling, or more than 10,000 after rendezvousing with an aerial tanker, making them surprisingly efficient for such large aircraft.
With a total program bill of nearly $50 billion and an operating cost of $135,000 per hour, the 21 B-2s built are among the Air Force’s most costly acquisitions.
Over the years they have flown sorties in Kosovo, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but their use has been limited.
3. F-22 Raptor
Though it’s widely regarded as one of the most capable air superiority fighters in service today, to many naysayers the F-22 raptor symbolizes everything wrong with military procurement.
With a per-unit cost approaching $200 million, each is actually well over $300 million when research and development and lifetime maintenance costs are factored in, and total program cost exceeded $70 billion.
The Raptor’s development got underway in the early ‘80s when forward looking Air Force brass envisioned a time when legacy fighters like F-15s and 16s would be obsolete.
What they needed was an Advanced Tactical Fighter to counter emerging threats, primarily from fast, maneuverable, and relatively inexpensive Soviet Su-27 Flankers and MiG-29 Fulcrums.
To outclass its adversaries, the F-22 would utilize a variety of groundbreaking advancements including lightweight alloys and composite materials, cutting edge avionics, more powerful and efficient engines, and stealth technology.
Each Raptor is 62 feet long, has a wingspan of almost 45 feet, and is capable of taking to the skies with a maximum takeoff weight of more than 80,000 pounds (36,200 kg) when fully loaded with ordinance and fuel.
Outfitted with two Pratt & Whitney F119-100 turbofan engines producing nearly 35,000 pounds of thrust each, Raptors are capable of achieving ‘Supercruise’ speeds of Mach 1.8 – about 1,400 mph – without using fuel guzzling afterburners.
With a meteoric service ceiling of nearly 65,000 feet (19,800 m), a climb rate of more than 1,100 feet per second, and a range of nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km), Raptors are world-class performers in a number of categories.
And they’re agile too, largely due to thrust vectoring nozzles fitted to each engine.
Though the last F-22 was delivered in mid-2012, they’re still operational, and according to the USAF, they may be until as late as 2060.
4. C-17 Globemaster III
Though it tends to get lost in the shadow of it’s slightly larger and much older cousin the C-5 Galaxy, the Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster III definitely takes the cake when it comes to cost.
They’re the newest components of the Air Force’s heavy airlift inventory – and at nearly $220 million a pop one of the most expensive too.
In the aforementioned aircraft names the “C” stands for cargo, and the C-17 is among the largest transporters of military personnel, machines and supplies in the world.
Globemaster IIIs were manufactured jointly between McDonnell Douglas and Boeing Defense and made their maiden test flight in September of 1991, but didn’t officially enter service until a few years later.
The C-17 was designed to meet a number of rigorous requirements that C-5s just can’t match, namely that it must have a mission completion probability of at least 93% and require less than 20 maintenance hours for every hour of flight time, the latter of which was made possible by using readily available commercial components and avionics.
C-17s are also capable of taking off from and landing on austere runways as short as 3,000 feet despite having a maximum takeoff weight of almost 600,000 pounds (265,306 kilos),
Each aircraft has a length and wingspan of nearly 175 feet (52 m) and stands 55 feet (16.5 meters) tall at the tail.
The cargo compartment alone measures 85 feet (26 meters) long, 18 feet (5.5 meters) wide and up to 13 feet high in some areas.
Cargo capacity is nearly 171,000 pounds (76,600 kg), which makes it one of only a few airplanes in the world that can carry a main battle tank like the M1 Abrams, which are loaded by a large ramp in the aft of the aircraft below the tail.
When not hauling armor, each C-17 can carry more than 100 soldiers or paratroopers, up to 54 wounded soldiers and medical personnel, or palletized freight in 18 positions.
To get all that weight moving from a dead stop takes tons of power which is produced by four Pratt and Whitney F117-PW-100 turbofan engines with more than 40,000 pounds of thrust each.
About 500 mph.
Range is up to 6,200 miles (10,400 km) depending on gross weight and headwind, and nearly unlimited with in-flight refueling.
For normal operations, each C-17 has a crew of three consisting of a pilot, copilot and loadmaster responsible for ensuring the cargo is evenly distributed and properly secured.
The C-17 fleet’s planned service-life will extend into the 2030s, although it’ll probably remain in service decades longer.
However, after nearly 25 years production finally ceased in February 2015.
All told, C-17s went to air forces all over the world including Qatar, Canada, Kuwait, India, and the United Arab Emirates.
5. P-8A Poseidon
Unlike the other capable and pricey machines on the list, the Boeing P-8A Poseiden can’t fly 70-ton M1 Abrams main battle tanks halfway around the globe, break the sound barrier, or launch nuclear missiles from deep within the ocean, but at nearly $300 million it’s still one of the US Navy’s most expensive craft.
When it was officially rolled-out in 2013, the Poseidon took the place of Lockheed’s P-3 Orion – a turbo-prop powered anti-submarine aircraft that served in a variety of roles for more than half a century.
But underpowered engines, aging airframes, and limited endurance worsened by the near constant addition of new equipment that made the plane heavier than it was ever meant to be, prompted the US Navy to start looking for a replacement in the early ‘80s.
Competing designs were submitted by Lockheed and British defense and aerospace consortium BAE Systems, who offered to build a modified version of the ‘60s era Hawker Siddeley Nimrod maritime patrol and anti-sub platform that’d served the RAF for decades.
Thankfully for Boeing however, BAE lacked a US-based manufacturing partner and eventually withdrew their bid.
One might suspect with a price tag of nearly $300 million that the new aircraft were designed from the ground up, but that wasn’t the case, because the Poseidon was largely based on one of the company’s commercial airliners – the twin-engined 737-800.
However despite huge cost savings that resulted from the use of common components like engines and airframes, a significant portion of the plane’s exorbitant cost came from the cutting edge equipment necessary to perform its many roles, including detecting stealthy subs lingering hundreds of feet below the surface of the sea.
Like its predecessor the P-8 is primarily a sub hunter, but it’s a true multi-mission maritime aircraft that also acts in ship interdiction, anti-surface warfare, surveillance, reconnaissance, and search and rescue capacities as well.
Each is nearly 130 feet long, 42 feet tall, has a wingspan of nearly 125 feet, and is powered by two CFM International high-bypass turbofans each of which produces about 27,000 pounds of thrust.
With a maximum takeoff weight of 190,000 pounds ( 86,000 kg), that’s enough power to propel the aircraft to a height of nearly 40,000 feet where it’s capable of reaching speeds in excess of 500 mph (850 km/h).
But although it’s capable of high speeds and altitudes, on some sub detection and intelligence missions it’s necessary for the aircraft to fly “low and slow,” skimming just a few hundred feet over the surface at less than 200 mph (300 km/h).
With a full fuel load, Poseidons have a ferry range of about 4,300 miles (7,000 km) and are capable of aerial refueling which extends their range exponentially.
In addition to their abundance of high-tech gear like air launched sonobuoys and radar, Poseidon are armed with torpedoes, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, bombs, depth charges, mines and both air-to-air and air-to-land missiles.
They can also work in conjunction with other aircraft, naval vessels and drones for specific roles and targets they can’t handle themselves.
As of May 2020 122 units have been built, and though most have gone to the US Navy, others have been exported to India, England, Australia, Norway, New Zealand and North Korea.