Discretionary Spending

Function 050 - National Defense

Cancel Plans to Purchase Additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and Instead Purchase 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 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028 2019-
Change in Planned Defense Spending  
  Budget authority 0 -2.4 -2.3 -2.0 -2.2 -2.6 -1.0 -0.5 -1.1 -2.1 -8.9 -16.2
  Outlays 0 -0.3 -0.8 -1.5 -1.8 -2.0 -2.1 -1.8 -1.3 -1.2 -4.4 -12.8

This option would take effect in October 2019.
Estimates of savings displayed in the table are based on the 2019 Future Years Defense Program and the Congressional Budget Office's extension of that plan.


The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the military's largest aircraft development program. As a stealthy aircraft, the F-35 is difficult for adversaries to detect by radar and other air defense sensors. The program is producing three versions of that aircraft: the conventional takeoff F-35A for the Air Force, the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B for the Marine Corps, and the carrier-based F-35C for the Navy. The Department of Defense (DoD) has received appropriations for 542 F-35s through 2019: 338 F-35As, 135 F-35Bs, and 69 F-35Cs. Current plans call for purchasing 1,914 more F-35s through 2044. According to DoD, the remaining costs to complete the program will amount to $253 billion (in nominal dollars). The Marine Corps' and the Air Force's versions of the F-35 entered operational service in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The Navy expects to declare its version operational in 2019.


Under this option, DoD would halt further production of the F-35 and instead purchase the most advanced versions of older, nonstealthy fighter aircraft that are still in production. Through 2028, the Air Force would purchase 510 F-16 Fighting Falcons, and the Navy and Marine Corps would purchase 394 F/A-18 Super Hornets. Those purchases would occur on the same schedule as that currently in place for the F-35s. The services would continue to operate the 429 F-35s that have already been purchased.

Effects on the Budget

By the Congressional Budget Office's estimates, this option would reduce budget authority by about $16 billion from 2020 through 2028, provided that appropriations were reduced accordingly. The savings are based on procurement cost estimates DoD published in its December 2017 Selected Acquisition Report for the F-35 program and CBO's estimate of current prices for F-16s and F/A-18s. In terms of outlays, savings would be about $13 billion from 2020 through 2028. The remaining $3 billion reduction in outlays corresponding to the reduction in budget authority through 2028 would occur in later years. Reductions in outlays lag reductions in budget authority because DoD pays for aircraft as expenses are incurred. For example, CBO projects that most of the outlays to procure new military aircraft would occur over four years to account for the time required to negotiate contracts, manufacture and deliver the aircraft, and process the final payments.

CBO did not include possible changes in operation and maintenance costs under this option because the cost to operate an established fleet of F-35s remains uncertain. On the one hand, F-35s are now expected to be more expensive to operate than new F-16s or F/A-18s on a per-aircraft basis. On the other hand, any decrease in operation costs that might accrue from reducing the types of fighters in service would be delayed under this option. For example, F-16s would remain in the Air Force's inventory longer than currently planned, and the Marine Corps would need to operate new F/A-18s along with its F-35Bs. The savings under this option could be higher or lower depending on the relative magnitude of such factors.

Additional procurement savings would accrue from 2029 through 2044 if DoD purchased F-16s and F/A-18s instead of the F-35s that are scheduled to be purchased in those later years. However, the Navy and Air Force are both considering the development of entirely new aircraft with fighter-like capabilities to be fielded in the 2030s, making it unlikely that F-16 and F/A-18 purchases would continue much beyond 2028. It is unclear how the costs to develop and purchase entirely new aircraft would compare with the costs of current plans for the F-35 or continued purchases of F-16s and F/A-18s under this option. It might also be possible to scale back this option by purchasing a mix of F-35s, F-16s, and F/A-18s over the next 10 years instead of replacing all F-35 purchases with F-16s and F/A-18s. That middle course of action would probably yield little or no savings, however; the unit costs of all three types of aircraft would be higher because each of their production rates would be lower.

Other Effects

An advantage of this option is that it would reduce the cost of replacing DoD's older fighter aircraft while still providing new F-16s and F/A-18s with improved capabilities—including modern radar, precision weapons, and digital communications—that would be able to defeat most of the threats that the United States is likely to face in the coming years. The F-35s that have already been purchased would augment the stealthy B-2 bombers and F-22 fighters that are currently in the force, improving the services' ability to operate against adversaries equipped with advanced air defense systems. The military has successfully operated a mix of stealthy and nonstealthy aircraft since the advent of the F-117 stealth fighter in the 1980s.

A disadvantage of this option is that a force composed of a mix of stealthy and nonstealthy aircraft would be less flexible against advanced enemy air defense systems. If the United States was unable to neutralize such defenses early in a conflict, then the use of F-16s and F/A-18s might be limited, effectively reducing the number of fighters that the United States would have at its disposal. Although the Marine Corps would end up with fewer STOVL fighters capable of operating from amphibious assault ships under this option, enough F-35Bs have already been purchased to fully replace the STOVL AV-8B Harriers that perform that function today.