In early 2015, the U.S. Air Force was about to begin work on its next-generation air-to-air fighter, commonly known as F-X. When beginning such a program, military services usually start with an “analysis of alternatives” to help them define the desired attributes of new systems. The objective of this analysis is to determine the most rational investment decisions prior to committing taxpayer dollars. Key funding decisions typically follow shortly on the heels of this analytic effort. As the Air Force approached these decisions, it had to decide how much of its topline budget authority it was willing to allocate to the emerging F-X program. Out of this came a cost estimate for the F-X program based on trends from similar programs in the past. The result was not pretty.
The two most recent examples analysts had available were the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. As has been written extensively elsewhere, both programs experienced cost issues throughout development. Such issues eventually drove Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to truncate the F-22 program at 187 aircraft and also led to a re-baselining of the F-35 program in 2010. Comparing the expense of these fifth-generation aircraft programs to fourth-generation F-16 and F-15 programs, experts predicted F-X would cost substantially more than any prior fighter program in history. Additionally, Air Force planners evaluated the development timelines experienced during fifth-generation aircraft development. The combination of historically poor schedule performance with historically high costs led planners to conclude the earliest the Air Force could expect and afford to field F-X would be around the year 2040.