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20 June 2012


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Hi James. Very good analysis. The one thing I'd mention is that the general is probably right about F-16 buy cost.

Iraq's cost for downgraded F-16C/D Block 52s is $46 million per only if you don't mind leaving things like radars out of your F-16. Those items are contracted separately, and add up fast.

Ha! I missed that. Thanks for the insight, Joe. I suppose that one *could* resurrect that idea from the early 1990s for an A-16, without a radar, as that might have a point in this context. But really, the next time I run the numbers, I'll use the general's figure.

Excellent analysis but I think you missed a few points that further make the MQ-9 economical for its mission set.

1. Although you said the analysis part is a wash, it really isn't. The MQ-9 can piggyback the sensor information on the installed satcom datalink. The F-16 would have to add the datalink either to the existing F-16 airframe or in a pod. In any event, it adds some additional cost to the F-16/A-10 to meet the capability provided by the MQ-9.

2. And while we are talking about datalinks, the flight personnel in the F-16 need to be in country or at least in nearby countries while the MQ-9 flight personnel are at homestation. As a result, the MQ-9 flight personnel cost a whole lot less to include flight to and from theater, billeting and support in theater, personnel equipment, medical in theater, etc. How much additional cost does it take to support one person on the other side of the world?

3. You mentioned continuing training costs but failed to mention initial training costs. An F-16 pilot has a much longer and more expensive training pipeline to get to his first squadron. While MQ-9s are currently largely flown by personnel trained on other manned aircraft, ultimately they can be flown by personnel with much lower cost flight training, probably on the order of millions of dollars per person less. Whats the difference in training costs between basic flight training in a T-6 and MQ-9 pipeline versus basic flight training in a T-6 followed by T-38s and F-16 transition time? Plus, the opportunity cost of the longer pipeline for the F-16 pilot needs to be figured in. If the average F-16 pilot took a year to get through to his/her squadron and the average MQ-9 guy gets there in 6 months, I potentially get 6 more months of squadron time out of each MQ-9 guy in a career. Of course, you may be able to extract a longer commitment from the F-16 guy which justifies the longer pipeline.

4. Flight crew utilization. Any number of common aches and pains can down a manned aircrew, a UAV pilot not so much. And things like water survival are not so critical. So each pilot can fly both more hours and more reliably meet his flight schedule. So you need a lower standard of redundancy to ensure you meet requirements, ultimately reducing MQ-9 pilots to do the same mission. Not to mention that since the MQ-9 guys are at homestation, in an emergency you can easily draw on additional personnel to meet requirements.

5. Since an A-10 or F-16 uses significantly more fuel, and cost of fuel can be significantly more expensive in theater (and to be fair sometimes it can be cheaper), a generic comparison of fuel costs may not be accurate. For instance, if the cost of fuel is twice the average in the forward location, while the percentage difference of fuel costs per hour flown will be the same, the absolute difference between the two will be twice as great.

6. One minor point in favor of the F-16 is that it doesn't require very expensive satcom links to operate, but since the sensors are all processed outside the theater, you probably couldn't reduce the absolute number of satellites.

Jim .... Nice article! What attracted me to it was claim that Wheeler's work was BS. It's refreahing to me to find someone who isn't afraid to stand up to people like Wheeler.

Thanks for both Curt and Kasys for the endorsements. As Curt has some recommendations, I should acknowledge the advice in detail:

1. Agree. I really should think more about the datalink costs, but you may be quite right about that.

2. Agree. I missed the difference TDY costs of airmailing the whole of the mini-squadron's strength around the world. I'll adjust next time.

3. Agree. Training a drone pilot almost certainly costs a lot less than training an F-16 pilot. The USAF may have the numbers, but if I can't find them (next time), I will think about how to estimate these.

4. Agree. I didn't miss this; I did actually think about it, and alluded to it in my point about crew rest. All the same, I didn't address it quantitatively, and I probably should have tried to do so. One would need rather a few more pilots to somehow keep the same number of F-16s or A-10s airborne.

5. Agree. I totally missed that. I just took the USAF's fuel costs as fuel costs, and we've all read a lot about how fuel costs crazy amounts in Afghanistan.

6. Mostly agree. I admit to having left out the datalink costs, and frankly, satellite bandwidth should be relatively easy to price. There's something of a market for it. I do take your point about the fighter possibly needing to export its imagery, but we could price out a line-of-sight link with a big team of analysts at Bagram. When I have more time, or someone wants a thorough rethinking of this, I will definitely do that.

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  • James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Center for Government Contracting in the School of Business at George Mason University, and a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center on Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. Since September 2001, he has been studying global security challenges and the economic enterprises that provide the tools to address them.


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