Falling Short

Joint Aircraft Fail to Deliver Anticipated Savings

By Mark A. Lorell, Michael Kennedy, Robert S. Leonard, and Robert A. Guffey

For years, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy have been contemplating major investments in new fighter aircraft, known as sixth-generation fighter aircraft, which would have the capabilities to meet emerging threats expected as soon as 2030. As of now, the U.S. Department of Defense budget for fiscal year 2015 is expected to include seed money for such a program, including the possible development of a single joint fighter to be used by both services.

Given past history and the current constrained budget environment, it is likely that a joint strategy will be seriously considered for any future sixth-generation fighter acquisition program. Joint programs, in which two or more services participate in the development, procurement, and support of a single baseline design, are thought to save life-cycle costs by eliminating duplicative research, development, testing, and evaluation activities and by achieving economies of scale in both the production and the operations and support of the aircraft.

However, recent research from RAND Project AIR FORCE finds that 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 combined functionality and weight in excess of what any individual service requires. These factors can increase the total life-cycle cost of a system, despite the efficiencies gained.

In short, we find no evidence that historical joint aircraft programs have saved money. We also find that joint aircraft programs have obliged the services to accept unwelcome design compromises, have contributed to the shrinking of the military aircraft industrial base, and might have heightened the strategic and operational risks for the services and their pilots. Consequently, unless the participating services have identical and stable requirements, the Defense Department should avoid taking a joint approach to acquiring future fighter and other complex aircraft.

Same joint origin, separate service aircraft: Although arising from the same joint aircraft program, the types of aircraft shown here evolved into two distinct platforms having no commonality: the U.S. Navy F/A-18A "Hornet," also known as the Blue Angel, and the U.S. Air Force F-16A "Fighting Falcon."

U.S. Navy F/A-18A Hornet, aka the Blue Angel

U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Saul McSween

U.S. Air Force F-16A Fighting Falcon

U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael Ammons

Higher Cost Growth Offsets Joint Program Savings

Although it is typical for major acquisition programs to experience some cost growth in the development and procurement phases, the cost growth for joint aircraft programs, on average, has been significantly higher than for single-service programs.

The cost growth for joint aircraft programs, on average, has been significantly higher than for single-service programs.

We compared the acquisition cost estimates for America's four most recent joint military aircraft programs and its four most recent single-service military aircraft programs. The four joint programs are the T-6A Joint Primary Aircraft Training System, the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, the V-22 Osprey, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The four single-service programs are the C-17 airlifter, the F/A-18E/F fighter, the F-22 fighter, and the T-45 trainer. These eight aircraft represent all the major U.S. military aircraft acquisition programs launched since the mid-1980s, with the exception of highly classified programs, for which the cost data are not available in a comparable format.

The key benchmark in military acquisition programs is Milestone B. Milestone B marks the point at which an acquisition program has permission to move from the preliminary design stage into engineering and manufacturing development. The historical record reveals a wide chasm between single-service and joint aircraft programs in cost growth following Milestone B. Over time, a substantial "joint acquisition cost growth premium" becomes evident. Even assuming an ideal joint program in which two services acquire equal numbers of identical fighters, the maximum estimated savings in acquisition costs before cost growth would be negated by the joint acquisition cost growth premium.

Our analysis did find that, under ideal conditions, joint aircraft programs can save money on operations and support costs. An ideal joint fighter program, involving two services that procure equal numbers of identical aircraft and share 100 percent of all support assets and infrastructure, could save a maximum of about 3 percent of these costs. An ideal program involving three services could save a maximum of 4.7 percent of these costs.

But overall, given the range of joint acquisition cost growth premiums experienced by historical programs, we find no evidence that even the maximum operations and support savings would result in lower life-cycle cost in a joint aircraft program.

Reconciling Unique Service Requirements Adds Complexity, Cost

The need to accommodate requirements unique to each service contributes to the joint cost-growth premium. There is an inherent tension between the pursuit of system commonality — the primary source of joint savings — and the fulfillment of service-specific needs. Each of the services has unique capability requirements based on different operating environments, missions, doctrines, and operational concepts.

There is an inherent tension between the pursuit of system commonality and the fulfillment of service-specific needs.

The launch and recovery of jets on an aircraft carrier, for example, involve fundamentally different design challenges than those of takeoff and landing on a land base. Short-takeoff and vertical landing aircraft pose even greater engineering demands. Attempts to accommodate these differing requirements within a common airframe can increase technical complexity and risk, thus prolonging development and driving up acquisition costs. The attempt to incorporate differing requirements in the same basic design also leads to excess functionality and weight, which further escalate the cost and risk.

The design compromises necessitated by joint aircraft programs often leave the participating services unsatisfied and have even resulted in partners withdrawing from these programs. Of the 11 major historical joint fighter programs we examined dating from the 1960s to the 1990s, all but three led to the withdrawal of one of the partners or cessation of the program very early in the effort, almost always because of conflicts over performance requirements and design.

The figure illustrates the flight away from commonality and toward service optimization in four joint fighter programs from the 1960s and 1970s. Each program began with the goal of 100 percent commonality but spawned generations of service-specific variants. In the case of the Tactical Fighter, Experimental (which became the F-111), the requisite design compromises displeased the services, and the Navy withdrew from the program. In the case of the Air Combat Fighter (which became the F-16), the program gave rise to distinct platforms that eventually had no commonality. Such predictable trajectories negate the benefits of commonality and eliminate the theoretical basis for joint cost savings.

Joint Fighter Programs Have Often Started with the Goal of a Common Aircraft but Evolved into Multiple Variants, Leading to Increasingly Less Commonality and Reduced Cost-Savings Potential

Joint Fighter Programs Have Often Started with the Goal of a Common Aircraft but Evolved into Multiple Variants, Leading to Increasingly Less Commonality and Reduced Cost-Savings Potential

SOURCE: Do Joint Fighter Programs Save Money? 2013.
NOTES: * The Navy F-111B was canceled in 1968. TFX = Tactical Fighter, Experimental. ACF = Air Combat Fighter.

Is History Repeating Itself?

Today, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is exhibiting trends reminiscent of prior joint aircraft programs. These trends have emerged despite the fact that JSF planners took steps early on to address many of the challenges experienced by earlier joint programs. Now in low-rate initial production, the JSF program — which is developing three aircraft variants for the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps, and eight international partners — has incurred substantial cost growth in all life-cycle cost categories: development, production, and operations and support.

We assessed whether the JSF is on track to achieving the original cost savings anticipated at Milestone B. We traced the cost growth for the JSF from its Milestone B, which took place in 2001. We then developed representative cost estimates for three hypothetical single-service fighter programs over a similar period. We made conservative assumptions that generally favored the joint program approach.

We estimated that at Milestone B, the JSF's estimated acquisition (development and production) cost would be 25 percent lower than that for our three notional single-service fighters combined. But nine years later, the JSF's estimated acquisition cost grew higher than the combined estimate for the three single-service programs, even though we applied the equivalent cost growth rates of the highly complex F-22 fighter program to all three notional fighters. This outcome is consistent with historical experience, which shows that higher joint cost growth after Milestone B can reduce or cancel out the expected joint cost advantages at Milestone B. Our analysis suggests that the greater technical and programmatic complexity of a joint fighter program and the decreasing commonality among variants are important drivers of the JSF's acquisition cost growth.

From the perspective of life-cycle cost, our estimate at Milestone B shows the JSF costing 16 percent less than the combined estimate for the three single-service fighters, again reflecting the theoretical advantages of a joint program. However, the cost estimate for operating and supporting the JSF over its future decades of service more than tripled in the nine years following Milestone B, with the estimated life-cycle cost far exceeding that of the three notional single-service fighters. Even if all the single-service fighters were to experience yet a higher rate of future cost growth (comparable to the F-22 program at 14 years after Milestone B), the JSF's estimated life-cycle cost would still be substantially higher than that of the three single-service programs combined.

Our analysis suggests that the JSF is performing similarly to the legacy joint aircraft; we find no evidence that it will save money over three separate notional single-service programs. Moreover, the single-service programs could have made optimal use of different designs that would have done a better job of meeting the unique needs of each service. While this analysis does not provide a policy prescription for the current JSF program — which is far along its development path — the results underscore the skepticism with which decisionmakers should interpret the cost-savings arguments that will likely be made for future complex joint aircraft programs, such as a sixth-generation fighter.

Additional Harmful Consequences

Looking beyond cost considerations, policymakers should be mindful of the effects of joint aircraft programs on the combat aircraft industrial base and on operational and strategic risk.

The more the U.S. military employs joint fighters, the fewer options will be available to respond to unforeseen threats.

The pursuit of joint aircraft programs in recent decades has coincided with a reduction in the number of major fighter aircraft prime contractors, from eight in 1985 to just three today. Lockheed Martin is the only prime contractor actively leading a fifth-generation manned fighter-attack aircraft program (the JSF). Such a situation reduces the potential for future competition, may discourage innovation, and makes costs harder to control. Whether the next fighter development program will be joint or single-service, acquisition managers will face a more concentrated and possibly smaller industrial base and must understand the effect of acquisition strategy on the long-term health of the industry.

Having a variety of fighter aircraft platforms across the service inventories also provides a hedge against design flaws, maintenance problems, and safety hazards that could cause fleet-wide stand-downs. More to the point about operational risk, having a variety of fighter aircraft platforms increases the options available to meet unanticipated enemy capabilities. During the Korean War, for example, the U.S. Air Force was able to rapidly upgrade one of its four jet fighters, the F-86 Sabre, to counter the surprise introduction of the Soviet MiG-15, which was more capable than any other fighter in the U.S. inventory. Had the Air Force and Navy relied exclusively on a single joint fighter other than the F-86, it might have been impossible for America to meet the unanticipated new threat.

History has shown that joint fighter programs fail to realize overall cost savings — yet necessitate major compromises in requirements and capability.

The more the U.S. military employs joint fighters, the fewer options will be available to respond to unforeseen threats or to resolve unanticipated safety and reliability issues that can ground entire fleets of specific aircraft types.

History has shown that joint fighter programs fail to realize overall cost savings — yet necessitate major compromises in requirements and capability, while possibly damaging the industrial base and leading to increased operational and strategic risk. RAND recommends that, unless the participating services have identical stable requirements, the U.S. Department of Defense should avoid future joint fighter and other complex joint aircraft programs. square