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Over $44,000 an Hour to Fly: Putting the F-22 in Perspective

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In the midst of the debate over whether or not to suspend production of the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet, the Washington Post has revealed exactly how much it costs to fly and maintain each aircraft. It's dizzying.

The F-22 costs more than $44,000 an hour to fly. That's nearly 50 percent more than it costs to maintain its predecessor, the F-15. Think about that. That's what most Americans make in a year. And while the Air Force says the cost to fly the plane for an hour is $44,300, the Office of the Secretary of Defense says it's actually $49,800. They throw these numbers around like they're nothing.

Of course, I don't have an issue with spending whatever it takes to keep America safe. The problem with expanding production of these extravagantly priced F-22s is that they represent the cost to use something we'll likely never need--a Top Gun-style fighter jet which would've come in handy in the 1980s--at the expense of things we could really use at home and abroad--now.

Let's look at this another way. Let's look at it in terms of domestic issues and national security ones. Most operational F-22s are based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. According to the state Department of Education, the average annual salary of a Virginia public school teacher in 2009 is $51,900. So a public school teacher in Virginia deals with unruly fourth graders for an entire year to earn the amount it costs to fly an airplane for an hour. An airplane America will not need unless we find ourselves in all-out war with China or Russia. That doesn't make a lot of sense.

But let's not stop there. Let's turn to Afghanistan where troops have faced equipment and personnel shortages since 2001. The average infantry staff sergeant serving as a squad leader there--a person without whom counterinsurgency operations simply could not take place--makes around $32,500 a year. A first lieutenant platoon leader commanding a rural outpost in Pashtunistan makes around $41,800. You can add on, say, $10,000 to these positions for hazardous duty pay, housing, etc. Either way, the annual salaries of these critical personnel are more or less in line with what it costs to fly an F-22 for an hour.

That we would spend as much money in an hour flying a nearly useless fighter jet as we do paying critical personnel to fight the war on the ground is obscene. Many would say the teacher salary comparison is even worse. If I thought this jet would help enhance our national security at any time in the next 25 years, I'd offer a full-throated defense for its continued production. But because the program lives on as a contractor-driven Cold War zombie hunting for Congressional brains, it's just not something I can support. The money presently being allocated for more F-22s should instead be used to address the threats we might face in the near- to medium-term future--and not our Cold War foes.

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