Do Joint Fighter Programs Save Money?


(The RAND Blog)

F/A-18C Hornets fly from Andersen Air Base, Guam, during exercise Forger Fury II, 5 December, 2013

photo by Lance Cpl. Richard Currier/U.S. Air Force

by Mark A. Lorell

December 24, 2013

Joint aircraft programs are thought to reduce “life cycle cost” by eliminating duplicate research, development, test, and evaluation efforts and by realizing economies of scale in procurement, operations, and support.

But the need to accommodate different service requirements in a single design or common design family can lead to greater program complexity, increased technical risk, and common functionality and weight in excess of what is needed by an individual service, potentially leading to higher overall cost despite the life cycle cost efficiencies.

In our just-published report, “Do Joint Fighter Programs Save Money?,” we examined whether historical joint aircraft programs have saved life cycle costs compared with comparable single-service programs. We also examined the implications of joint fighter programs on the health of the defense industrial base, as well as operational and strategic risk.

Among our key findings:

  • Joint aircraft programs have not historically saved overall life cycle cost. On average, such programs experienced substantially higher cost growth in acquisition (research, development, test, evaluation, and procurement) than single-service programs. The potential savings in joint aircraft acquisition and operations and support compared with equivalent single-service programs is too small to offset the additional average cost growth that joint aircraft programs experience in the acquisition phase.

  • The difficulty of reconciling diverse service requirements in a common design is a major factor in joint cost outcomes. Diverse service requirements and operating environments work against commonality which is the source of potential cost savings, and are a major contributor to the joint acquisition cost-growth premium identified in the cost analysis.

  • Historical analysis suggests joint programs are associated with contraction of the industrial base and a decline in potential future industry competition, as well as increased strategic and operational risk due to dependency across the services on a single type of weapon system which may experience unanticipated safety, maintenance, or performance issues with no alternative readily available.

Some media reports attempted to describe our study as specific to the Joint Strike Fighter. In fact, the Joint Strike Fighter was examined as a case study and exhibited outcomes similar to past Joint aircraft systems. This finding provides no prescription for the current JSF program — which is far along its development path — but it underscores the skepticism with which decisionmakers should approach cost-saving arguments for future complex Joint aircraft.

Mark A. Lorell is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.