The Joneses…Cheaper Than Gripens?

US, UK and Japanese F-35s flies together during an exercise with the UK Royal Navy CSG 21. HMS Queen Elizabeth.

SHAH ALAM: Keeping up with the Joneses. Thailand wants to buy eight Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs stating that it will be cheaper than buying the latest version of the Saab JAS-39 Gripen, the E, Bangkok Post newspaper quoted RTAF chief as saying this on Dec. 31.

Gripen E takes off first time. SAAB

The Royal Thai Air Force is eyeing the procurement of eight US-made F-35 stealth jets, the world’s most advanced warplane, to strengthen national defence, said its commander-in-chief ACM Napadej Dhupatemiya.

ACM Napadej said the air force needs a new fleet of fighter jets as the ageing F-5 and F-16 aircraft have been in service for more than three decades.

As aircraft age, maintenance costs and safety risks are likely to increase.

The F-35 jets, manufactured by US defence giant Lockheed Martin, have emerged as the best choice now that costs are lower, down to US$82 million (2.7 billion baht) each from $142 million when the model first hit the market, he said.

With the new Swedish-made Saab Gripen priced at $85 million per unit, Lockheed Martin’s product is not out of reach, ACM Napadej said. Depending on negotiations, unit prices of the F-35 can be brought down to just above $70 million each, he said.

ACM Napadej said the budget planning for an F-35 acquisition project will be initiated in the 2023 fiscal year, which started in October, and the air force is prepared to answer all questions if it chooses to press ahead with the purchase.

Royal Thai AF F-5E seen during Ex-ThaMal exercise in June, 2015.

At the moment, only Singapore has ordered four F-35s with another eight on option. Indonesia has also toyed with the idea of buying the stealth fighter but so far only announced its attention to procure the F-15EX.

— Malaysian Defence

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25 Comments

  1. Im not sure how a non 1st tier nation (1st tier means not the original development partners) can get those prices which are same as US prices as recent purchases of F35 does not reflect that at all. Not to mention the operational cost of F35 is significantly higher than Gripen and even the F15EX.

  2. >F35 operational cost slightly higher than gripen

    Gripen is touted to have one of the lowest operational cost(±USD4500/flying hour), even lower than F-16(±USD6500/flying hour). In fact about the only “fighter” jet with lower operational cost is FA-50(±USD3000/flying hour)

    F-35 is about 7-8 times the operational no cost of gripen, and is even higher than F-15 so flying them is expensive. What’s the point of having 5th gen fighter if it’s only going to spend time as hangar queen and in parade?

  3. 1st tier nations get to have their input on the design and opportunities for industrial participation in manufacturing the f35. If buying througH FMS, we will be buying through USAF and thus are likely to get their prices.

  4. It must be noted that the large user base of the F-35 may well make it easier to maintain the fleet instead of a single fleet in Asia like what is happening with the Gripens in Thailand and MKMs in Malaysia. It may not be cheaper than the Gripens or even MKMs but it will make it easier

  5. Pinoy CinC just confirmed what I said all along that F35 prices are dropping like flies and it has been a while that it went under Gripen’s pricing. In fact, flyaway cost today is below the USD $80mil mark, and it continues to go even lower. In 10-15 years time, and if our RM doesn’t drop to bottom, we could realistically buy F35s in gradual numbers like what SG did until we have a sustainable fleet (ie 18 planes).

    Operating cost would defo be higher than much older planes, yes, but so as any new technology or innovations in other fields. Today’s hospital operating cost is far higher than say 20-30 years ago due to more complex equipments & facilities, and this reflected by the patients bills as compared 20-30 years ago. 5th/6th gen planes are inevitable so rather than concern about the cost, we should start planning & budgeting more to cater for its viable sustainment. No more huuhaa like the MKMs being down and played up by politicians.

  6. “may well make it easier to maintain the fleet”
    Knowing that right here we have LM approved maintenance & upgrading service for their Hercs(AIROD), we could leverage on that to expand that to a regional service center for F35s.

  7. I think we should stop thinking that other countries will want to have their military stuff being serviced by another country. It didn’t work for most of the commercial aircraft so why it should happened with the military is beyond me. Anyone buying F-35 in the region will only have a MRO as the only local thing to show for the procurement, they will used this to tout local participation in the project. No regional service centre will do that.

  8. Costs, 2 things that we need to see.

    Firstly is the acquisition cost. Usually one off up front.

    Then is the operational costs. How much does it cost not just to fly the plane, but also to maintain it to its highest operational condition.

    Right now the best benchmark for F-35 costs would be from the Finland H-X competition. All the costs are put up front, in the open for everyone to read about. Finnish Air Force operational tempo is also much more similar to ours rather than compared to say USAF. Finnish Air Force for example, only plans for 140 hours of flying annually for each F-35, unlike nearly 300 hours for each USAF F-35. Still the projected operational cost of Finnish F-35 is about 31.5 thousand dollars per hour, still much more than say a Legacy Hornet or F-16.

    Anyhow another interesting aircraft to look out for is the KF-21, with its maiden flight to be had in less than 100 days away. If the planned operating costs can be achieved, it will be an interesting alternative for airforces with low operational budgets. If KAI can achieve an operating cost for FA-50 of less than half of the Gripen C/D, I believe they can achieve their target for KF-21 too.

  9. The F35 may not suit the RMAF’s requirements anyway: its single engine. A twin engine alternate is better, and the TAI FX might be a better option, perhaps?

  10. “why it should happened with the military is beyond me”
    Dunno. It works for the Hercs, rite? AIROD having serviced and even upgrade Hercs from other nations. So…

    @gonggok
    While KFX is tempting and indeed the Indons were in it once (they might go back again once it has matured), it is still a very very new platform with unknown stealth & 5th gen capabilities unlike the more proven F35. With the cost plunging down, it might soon reach a unit cost comparable to SH/ Typhoon/ Rafale, right around the ballpark for MRCA which we are targeting. And about operating cost, I can already tell you upfront no way any cheap 5th gen plane would be near to legacy/ 4.5gens. The radar absorbent paint alone far exceeds the normal cost of maintenance for non-stealth planes.

  11. We should be talking about the capabilities of the aircraft against the tjreat we are facing instead of costs. Otherwise, we are no different than the politicos, providing assets that do not meet the requirments of the armed forces…:only meeting the requirements of the rent seekers

  12. Yes, comparing a 50s era transport plane to a 5th gen fighter jet. Almost everyone in the region flies F-5s at one time in the 70s and 80s, no one send them to another country for maintenance. At the moment at least four countries in the region flies the H225M/EC725 no one has even talked about maintaining them in one regional centre. Apart from the national interest one must also think about whether the manufacturer themselves think whether it will be more profitable to them if they have four MRO centres, paid for by their own governments instead of a regional centre and paid by the OEM itself. It must be noted that at least one OEM tried to set up a regional MRO for their aircraft types, it didn’t work and they had to downsize the facility within the last two years.

  13. Info on maint cost from open source:
    The F-35’s operating cost is higher than those of some older fighters. In fiscal year 2018, the F-35A’s cost per flight hour (CPFH) was $44,000, a number that was reduced to $35,000 in 2019. For comparison, in 2015 the CPFH of the A-10 was $17,716; the F-15C, $41,921; and the F-16C, $22,514. Lockheed Martin hopes to reduce it to $25,000 by 2025 through performance-based logistics and other measures.

    Relating to that, im not sure if such planes would still require enclosed aircon hangars ie F22. If the USAF A variant needs it, then perhaps better to get USN C variant since these are designed for on deck carrier stowage hence more durable against the weather, as we are so fond of storing aircrafts outside.

  14. @joe
    “And about operating cost, I can already tell you upfront no way any cheap 5th gen plane would be near to legacy/ 4.5gens.”

    True but the way you put it is like F35 is the ‘only’ option we can afford to buy in 2030s and I know you are trying to push F35 as our future MRCA. By that time we could have more options like KF21 with improved stealth (up to F117 level) and TFX while 6th gen options are Tempest, Japan’s F-X and FCAS.

    No one here is implying the cost operating a 5th gen plane is is close 4.5gen. One could also argue that when KF21 reach the intended stealth level will cost more expensive or cheaper than F35 to operate. Well I might imply that a 4.5 gen fighter will cost near to operate as F35, which is F15EX with projected usd29,000 per hour compared to F35’s usd31,500/33000 per hour which is pretty ‘close’ to F35 ehhh?. It’s also remain to be seen whether KF21 with improved stealth, TFX, FX tempest etc cost less or more to operate compared to F15EX, Typhoon, Rafale, Su35 etc so hold your horses there.

    Another thing is RMAF requirments,will RMAF accept a single engine F35 instead of other twin engine options? Will RMAF skip 5th gen to go straight towards 6th gen? Will KF21 and TFX be enough for RMAF requirements even into the future? Can we afford to buy and fly them?

    @goggok
    “31.5 thousand dollars per hour”
    Indeed the operating cost of F35 had dropped from usd44,000 in 2016 to usd33,000 in 2020. This is good news as this cost may continue to go (up to some degree) so that it is more affordable for us to buy and operate when 2030s come by.

    @Hasnan
    “We should be talking about the capabilities of the aircraft against the tjreat we are facing instead of costs. Otherwise, we are no different than the politicos”

    If we live in ideal world where money is not an issue and there is no politicians at all, then that is great!! But reality is unfortunately otherwise. Money will always be an issue and politicians will definitely stay with us. Whatever the capability offered by that platform is, if we cannot absolutely afford to buy it, then there’s no point even to consider buying it. Still, you are free to discuss on capabilities against threat we facing freely in the comment section if you want to.

  15. joe – “it might soon reach a unit cost comparable to SH/ Typhoon/ Rafale, right around the ballpark for MRCA which we are targeting”

    Current F-35 unit cost, as per recently sold to Finland is around 82 million dollars each. Typhoon and Rafale cost more than 100 million dollars each.

    So far, the Finnish F-35 acquisition is worth around 8.378 billion Euros ($9.4 billion), of which the jets themselves account for fighters account for 4.703 billion Euros ($5.3 billion) — providing an equivalent cost-per-jet of around $82 million. On top of this, 754.6 million Euros ($852 million) has been allocated for AMRAAM and Sidewinder missiles. The remaining 2.92 billion Euros ($3.3 billion) covers maintenance equipment, spare parts, training equipment, and other systems and services between 2025 and 2030.

    The cost of infrastructure to operate the jets in Finland, including runways, hangarage, management systems, and staff, is put at 777 million Euros ($878 million), while 823.8 million Euros ($930 million) has been set aside for subsequent contracts and contract amendments. That is expected to include the remaining weapons and future contract changes.

    The target price for KAI KF-21 Boramae is about 65 million dollars each.

    Tomtom – “A twin engine alternate is better, and TAI FX might be a better option, perhaps?”

    If we need twin engines, KF-21 is the way forward. TAI TFX is a plane with the prototype planned to be powered by 2x F-110 F-16 engines, so just imagine how big and how expensive such a fighter would be.

  16. Philippines just released funding 15% downpayment for 2 Project 1. Philippine Navy Brahmos Anti-ship missile 3 batteries and 2. Philippine Army Brahmos Land Based missile system.. this 2 Brahmos system will be protected by Israel Spyder missile defense system that already delivered last December 2021. Good for them…

  17. No lah, all of our fighters got their own shelters. Only the Flankers are left out in the open whenever they are on temporary deployment to Labuan AB as the shelters there are too small for them. Its the same shelters for the airbases apart from the one at Gong Kedak which was specifically built for the Flankers

  18. @Luqman
    It is the ‘only’ matured Western option by 2030, unless you prefer SU57. And since TUDM prefers matured, in-use, planes, so…

    In all honesty I was a proponent for ‘other options’, UK’s Tempest is most promising, but seeing how per unit cost is continuing downwards plus our continuing dragging feets with MRCA, it might reach a point where F35 is the option with most wins.

    “No one here is implying the cost operating”
    It was in reply to Gonggok. Low budget AF should not bother considering 5th gen at all as operating cost will never ever be as low as legacy planes. If they will struggle to operate 4.5gen, a 5th gen fleet will kill their budget. KFX will not be 5th gen in the foreseeable future as many of the key features are not there yet, once these are implemented the operating cost will shoot up far more than KFX 4.5gen variant.

    “RMAF accept a single engine F35”
    AFAIK I never heard MRCA requirements must be twin engined. Please correct me. If related to range, the single engine F35 is almost as long as twin engine SH and given that we can IFR, range is not an issue I suppose.

    “Will RMAF skip 5th gen to go straight towards 6th gen?”
    Can our MRCA buy hold until 2040+ where Tempest & JF-X become a reality? If we could get 2nd hand Kuwaiti Hornets plus spareparts & spare frames, yes maybe.

  19. joe – “It is the ‘only’ matured Western option by 2030”

    RMAF is not looking for a new MRCA before 2030.

    joe – “Low budget AF should not bother considering 5th gen at all”

    KF-21 targeted sustainment and operational costs is put at half of the F-35. KAI are looking at around 18-20k dollars per hour to operate the KF-21. That is a number similar to current F-16s.

    joe – “KFX will not be 5th gen in the foreseeable future”

    The only addition for a full 5th gen capability for KF-21 is to enable the internal weapons bay. It is not done now to quicken the development time, as weapons release from internal weapons bay is complicated and time consuming.

    But KF-21 Block 2 with internal weapons bay is planned to go into full production by 2029, so when the time comes for RMAF to get new MRCAs, the KF-21 will have 5th gen characteristics.

    joe – “If we could get 2nd hand Kuwaiti Hornets plus spareparts & spare frames, yes maybe”

    From 2030-2040, can RMAF effectively fight against other adversaries in the region equipped with J-20, J-35, F-35, KF-21 with F/A-18? It is not just about having a fighter, it is about having the capability.

    Within 2030-2040,
    – China will have more than 500+ stealth fighters plus stealth bombers
    – Singapore will deploy multiple squadrons of F-35B
    – Indonesia will have its KF-21/IF-X.
    – Thailand will have at least 1 squadron of F-35A
    – Myanmar and vietnam probably will buy either Su-57 or Sukhoi Checkmate.

    Will RMAF still be a credible force without 5th gen fighters when most of our neighborhood are having them in 2030-2040?

  20. @gonggok
    We cannot compare with Finns as they have much higher tempo of flights. The reason why they need to replace their Hornets earlier than us (by 2025) is due to time expired airframes (bought circa 1995-2000s).

  21. @gonggok
    “RMAF is not looking for a new MRCA before 2030”
    Nope. We were so close to signing 4 years ago https://www.malaysiandefence.com/c-etait-la-rafale/

    “KAI are looking at around 18-20k dollars per hour”
    LM intends to reduce F35 cost per hour down to USD $25k. Not too far from KFX but on a better plane with longer maturity.

    “enable the internal weapons bay”
    Not just that but fine tune shaping of certain profiles, also LM might not be giving out their RAC paint formulation so KAI has to come out their own. And so far no indications KFX will get TVC jet engines so no super maneuverability.

    “full production by 2029”
    Even so, if we confirm to make a decision to buy in 2030, KFX 5th gen are barely 1 year old in service. Hardly a matured platform by 2030 decision time.

    “RMAF effectively fight against other adversaries”
    Legacy 4th gen Hornets vs modern 5th gens? Of course not. But are we going to be at war in 2030-2040? For peacetime QRA and ‘friendly’ interception, they can still do the job. These & MKMs would need to hold the line until we get our 5th gens.

    “Will RMAF still be a credible force without 5th gen fighters”
    Same question I asked if we had went for Rafale/Typhoon back then rather than hold our buys. Thank goodness we did.

  22. When we for eventually get new fighters; we also have to allocate funds for a AEW platform because the plain fact is that only when operating as part of a networked environment will we be able to get the most out of the capabilities a fighter has to offer…

    If we had goner for Rafale or Typhoon years back the question of whether the RMAF would be a ‘credible” [itself a subjective cliche] should not arise as the Typhoons or Rafale should have been supplemented by a 5th gen platform at a later date and during the period the were slated to enter service; had they been ordered; the threat environment as such… As such; whether something is ”credible” depends on the circumstances and have to be seen in that light….

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