Fighter jets are the most advanced, the most powerful, the most technologically complex aircraft. It is only natural that they are the most expensive ones too. So, if you had to buy one, what are your options?
Included here is the price of only an aircraft itself – without development programs, maintenance costs, and other things that cost a fortune in themselves. The “ticket price” of a jet is never set in stone too though, as it is often a subject of negotiation.
Many countries also buy domestically-produced jets much cheaper than their export price; others manage to set up full or partial manufacture of the desired jet in their country. The pure “export price” is taken for this list when possible, but it should not be taken for granted.
Only jets that are currently in production are listed – so, no F-22 Raptor, F-117 Nighthawk, or other jets that were very expensive for their time, but are no longer produced. On top of that, only the most expensive variant of a particular model is listed too, with one exception – which is further explained in the text.
With these caveats out of the way, let’s check how much the most expensive fighter jets cost in 2021!
10. Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70/72: $64 million
(Image: Lockheed Martin)
The F-16 was created as a light and maneuverable fighter jet that would offer an affordable alternative to the F-15. Its older variants cost roughly $30 million apiece – cheaper than the vast majority of contemporary fighters – but the most advanced ones are really quite pricey.
The Block 70 and 72 configurations include much of the upgrades intended for the F-16V, and most likely are very similar to the F-21, a jet Lockheed Martin has offered to India. While we may never know the price of the F-21 or the F-16V, the cost of a single F-16 Block 70 gives an insight into how much a top-of-the-line jet, based on the venerable F-16 airframe, may cost.
9. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: up to $67.4 million
(Image: US Navy)
The F/A-18 Super Hornet came in the late 90s, replacing older Hornets of A, B, C, and D variants. Although originally – and primarily – a carrier-based aircraft, it has found a fair share of interest from countries that intend to use it only as a ground-based one.
The latest upgrade of the F/A-18, the Block III configuration, features vast improvements to avionics and weapon systems. It brings the Super Hornet in line with the latest 4.5 generation fighter jets, but drives the price up as well.
The most expensive variant of this jet is the EA-18G Growler though, a dedicated electronic warfare aircraft with a price tag of up to $100 million. While it can be equipped with both air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, it is much too specialized to be considered in the same vein as regular fighter jets.
8. Lockheed Martin F-35A: $77.9 million
Everything about the F-35 is complicated. It went down in history as the most expensive weapon system ever, and while Lockheed Martin managed to drive down the cost of a single off-the-shelf F-35A to less than $80 million, this price tag is just the tip of the iceberg. The operational costs of the newest American jet are some of the highest in the world, so the aircraft is relatively cheap to buy but very expensive to maintain.
Also, the F-35A is just one of the three very different variants. It is the cheapest one, and since the price disparity is so vast, don’t be alarmed if you meet its brothers further down the list.
7. Saab JAS 39E/F Gripen: $85 million
The Swedish JAS 39 Gripen, of variants C and D, is notorious for being one of the cheapest new 4 or 4.5 generation fighter jets around. Its cost could go as low as $30 million per piece, a bargain for such an advanced machine.
Its latest variants, the E and F, changed that. While they are still much cheaper to operate than 5th generation fighter jets, the cost of one such jet has more than doubled. An explanation of that lies in jets’ differences: almost everything, except for the airframe, got upgraded. New radar, engine, avionics, improved weapons systems – very little remained of the old Gripen.
In 2012, the new-generation JAS 39 was expected to cost over $100 million. It is only in the latest years that Saab managed to reduce the price, and with the reduction, the Gripen once again became a sought-after jet on the international market.
6. Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker E: $85 million
(Image: Fasttailwind / Shutterstock)
Russian fighter jets have a reputation of being cheap. The Su-35 is not. In fact, its export price is bigger than that of the Su-57, the latest Russian 5th generation fighter. Of course, no contracts are so far signed for the Su-57 and its cost is unofficial and speculative. So, at least so far, the Su-35 remains the most expensive Russian jet.
Its price may also seem a bit confusing: being an upgrade to the Soviet-era Su-27, the Su-35 belongs to the same family as the Su-30, Su-33, Su-34, and Su-37. While the Su-33 and the Su-37 are not for sale, the Su-34 and the Su-30 (as well as its numerous variants) all cost more than twice cheaper than the Su-35. It explains why Russia has struggled to find a customer to this jet, and although some counties are reportedly interested – besides China and Egypt who already bought some – in comparison with the Su-30, the Flanker E seems like a bit of a dud.
5. McDonnell Douglas F-15EX Strike Eagle: $87.7 million
The F-15 itself was not supposed to be cheap, and its latest variant, the F-15EX, demonstrates that. It is supposed to replace older C and D models while being more affordable than the most advanced 5th generation jets. That affordability comes mostly in operational costs though, as the aircraft itself is more expensive than the F-35A.
Its operating cost is supposed to be “only” $29,000 per hour though, and the US government only hopes to bring the operating cost of the F-35A to $36,000 by 2024. That, as well as similarity to previous models of the F-15, makes the F-15EX an attractive aircraft for many countries.
4. Chengdu J-20: $100 million
(Image: Alert5 / Wikipedia)
Very little is known about the Chinese 5th generation jet. Its price tag is, too, mere speculation. Nevertheless, considering the fact that just several decades ago China had no aviation industry as such and that labor costs in the country are steadily rising – as well as until recently the country had to buy all jet engines from Russia – the estimate seems realistic.
The J-20 is not for sale though, as China never intended to export its top weapon. In the very near future, it may offer another 5th generation fighter jet, the Shenyang FC-31, for the international market, although its price so far is unknown too.
3. Dassault Rafale: around $115 million
(Image: Sirpa Air)
There are varying reports about the price of the Rafale, ranging between $100 and $120 million per piece in the most basic configuration. The French Air Force definitely bought the plane for much less, although the Indian deal – reportedly, full of minute, but pricey enhancements – was more expensive, and is often criticized for that.
Nevertheless, being one of the most advanced aircraft and manufactured in one of the most expensive regions of the world, the Rafale is not cheap.
2. Eurofighter Typhoon: around $124 million
(Image: SpaceKris / Shutterstock)
Another European fighter jet, the Eurofighter Typhoon may cost as cheap as $50 million for buyers within the European Union, but the export price is much higher. In 2018, Airbus reportedly offered Eurofighters to India for as much as €138 million per piece, which is still cheaper than what was paid for Rafales.
For both Eurofighter and Rafale, we are talking about the latest configuration: the Tranche 4 and the F3-R (or equivalent) respectively.
1. Lockheed Martin F-35B and F-35C: $135.8 and $117.3 million
While the price of a single F-35A has dropped sharply in recent years, the more complex variants – F-35B and F-35C – did not follow the same trend as much.
To be fair, the A, B, and C variants of the F-35 are, for all intents and purposes, different aircraft. The most expensive F-35B is equipped for short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL), while the F-35C is the carrier-borne variant; all of them share no more than 30% of parts between each other, meaning that optimizing production for one barely affects the other.
Which makes the F-35B the most expensive fighter jet that can be acquired in 2021