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Research Questions

  1. Have historical joint aircraft programs saved Life Cycle Cost compared with single-service programs?
  2. Is Joint Strike Fighter on track to achieving the Life Cycle Cost savings anticipated at the beginning of full-scale development?
  3. What factors contributed to cost outcomes in historical joint aircraft programs and the Joint Strike Fighter?
  4. What are the implications of a joint aircraft approach for the industrial base?
  5. What are the implications of a joint aircraft approach for operational and strategic risk?

In the past 50 years, the U.S. Department of Defense has pursued numerous joint aircraft programs, the largest and most recent of which is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Joint aircraft programs are thought to reduce Life Cycle Cost (LCC) 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 or increased weight in excess of that needed for some variants, potentially leading to higher overall cost, despite these efficiencies. To help Air Force leaders (and acquisition decisionmakers in general) select an appropriate acquisition strategy for future combat aircraft, this report analyzes the costs and savings of joint aircraft acquisition programs. The project team examined whether historical joint aircraft programs have saved LCC compared with single-service programs. In addition, the project team assessed whether JSF is on track to achieving the joint savings originally anticipated at the beginning of full-scale development. Also examined were the implications of joint fighter programs for the health of the industrial base and for operational and strategic risk.

Key Findings

Joint Aircraft Programs Have Not Historically Saved Overall Life Cycle Cost

  • Historical joint aircraft programs on average experienced substantially higher cost growth in acquisition (research, development, test, evaluation, and procurement) than single-service programs. The maximum percentage theoretical savings in joint aircraft acquisition and operations and support compared with equivalent single-service programs are too small to offset this additional average cost growth that joint aircraft programs experience in the acquisition phase.

Joint Strike Fighter Is Not on the Path to Achieving the Savings Anticipated at Milestone B

  • Under none of the plausible conditions analyzed did Joint Strike Fighter have a lower Life Cycle Cost estimate than three notional equivalent single-service programs.

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 the potential for joint cost savings, which depends on maximum commonality, and are a major contributor to the joint acquisition cost-growth premium identified in this cost analysis.

Joint Aircraft Programs Have Historically Been Associated with a Shrinking Combat Aircraft Industrial Base

  • The presence of fewer prime contractors in the market reduces the potential for future competition, may discourage innovation, and makes costs more difficult to control.

Joint Aircraft Programs Could Increase Operational and Strategic Risk to Warfighters

  • Having a variety of fighter platform types across service inventories provides a hedge against design flaws and maintenance and safety issues, which could potentially cause fleetwide stand-downs.
  • It also increases the options available to meet unanticipated enemy capabilities.


  • Unless the participating services have identical, stable requirements, the U.S. Department of Defense should avoid future joint fighter and other complex joint aircraft development programs.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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