Budget Options
November 13, 2013

Discretionary Spending Option 4

Function 050 - National Defense

Replace the Joint Strike Fighter Program With F-16s and F/A-18s

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

(Billions of dollars) 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2014-2018 2014-2023
Change in Spending                        
  Budget authority 0 -5.5 -5.9 -6.1 -5.8 -4.6 -4.8 -5.5 -5.0 -5.3 -23.3 -48.5
  Outlays 0 -1.1 -2.4 -3.7 -4.7 -5.1 -5.1 -5.0 -5.0 -5.0 -11.9 -37.1

Note: This option would take effect in October 2014. Estimates of savings displayed in the table are based on the fiscal year 2014 Future Years Defense Program and the Congressional Budget Office’s extension of that program.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is the military’s largest aircraft development program. Its objective is to design and produce three versions of the stealthy aircraft, which are designed to reduce the probability of detection by radar and other sensors: a conventional takeoff version for the Air Force; a carrier-based version for the Navy; and a short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version for the Marine Corps. The Departments of the Navy and the Air Force placed orders for 150 F-35s from 2007 through 2013 and anticipate purchasing about 2,300 more from 2014 through 2037. The Department of Defense (DoD) has estimated that the remaining cost for those purchases, including the cost to complete development, will amount to about $300 billion (in nominal dollars). (All three versions of the aircraft are still under development and will not enter operational service for several years.)

Under this option, DoD would cancel the F-35 program and instead purchase the most advanced versions of fighter aircraft already in production: the Lockheed Martin F-16 for the Air Force, and the Boeing F/A-18 for the Navy and Marine Corps. By the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates, the option would save $37 billion in outlays from 2015 through 2023 if the F-16s and F/A-18s were purchased on the same schedule as that planned for the F-35s. An additional $60 billion in savings, roughly, would accrue from 2024 through 2037 as the F-35s planned for those later years were also replaced with F-16s and F/A-18s.

An argument in favor of this option is that new F-16s and F/A-18s would be sufficiently advanced—if equipped with upgraded modern radar, precision weapons, and digital communications—to meet the threats that the United States is likely to face in the foreseeable future. The extreme sophistication of the F-35 and the additional technical challenge of building three distinct types of aircraft with a common airframe and engine have resulted in significant cost growth and schedule delays, and additional cost growth and schedule delays remain a possibility. As a result of the delays that have already occurred, the Air Force and the Navy are incurring substantial costs to maintain their force sizes by extending the service life of fighters currently in the force. Further delays in F-35 deliveries could increase those costs as well. The cost of new upgraded F-16s and F/A-18s also could escalate, but their lesser technical challenges (relative to those of the F-35) would make comparable cost growth unlikely.

A disadvantage of this option is that F-16 and F/A-18 aircraft lack the stealth design features that would help the F-35 evade detection and hence operate more safely in the presence of enemy air defenses. The armed services would maintain some stealth capabilities, however, with the B-2 bomber and F-22 fighters already in the force. Any greater need for stealth capabilities that might arise in the future would have to be addressed with a new system—for example, stealthy unmanned attack aircraft or long-range bombers that the services also plan to develop. Another potential disadvantage of this option is that substituting F/A-18s for the F-35B—the Marine Corps’ STOVL version of the F-35—would remove that service’s capability to operate fixed-wing fighters from the amphibious assault ships in naval expeditionary strike groups, a capability currently provided by the AV-8B Harrier. Those strike groups would have to rely on armed helicopters (which lack the range, speed, payload, and survivability of the F-35) or on other forces, such as aircraft from aircraft carrier strike groups.