The A-10 Warthog: Versus the Competition

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The A-10 Warthog: Versus the Competition Fairchild Republic’s A-10 Thunderbolt is taking friendly fire... from the U.S. Air Force. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

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Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Falcon The U.S. Air Force flies 827 F-16s, making it our most numerous fighter jet by a factor of two. Each one costs about $34 million to buy. According to the Air Force comptroller, an F-16C costs $22,514 per hour to fly. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Purchase cost data from Deagel.com. Ownership cost-per-flight-hour data from USAF and based on 2012 costs.

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Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Still early in its production run, F-35 purchase costs are in flux. Some say the plane costs “only” $100 million to buy. Deagel.com puts it at $154 million. Cost per flight hour is a moving target, too, but USAF Chief of Staff Gen Mark Welsh estimates it at about $32,000. Photo : Wikimedia Commons

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Lockheed Martin AC-130U “Spooky” A small production run meant high purchase costs for the AC-130U -- $81 million apiece. They’re not exactly cheap to fly, either, at a per-hour cost of $45,986. Photo : Wikimedia Commons

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Boeing B-1B Lancer America’s 60 B-1B bombers cost taxpayers $200 million apiece to acquire – a shocking figure at the time, but not much more than an F-35 costs today. The cost of flying the B-1B, though, is sky-high -- $57,807 per hour in 2012. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II Last but not least, we come to the plane that USAF says is too expensive to keep. How expensive is the A-10? Deagel.com puts the purchase price at just $9 million per plane... ...and the Air Force’s comptroller says it costs $17,716 per hour to fly. Photo : Wikimedia Commons

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Make no mistake. These are all fantastic warplanes, and each one is very good at the job it does. The F-16 Fighting Falcon is a superb fighter jet, and the most popular fighter on the planet. Its replacement, Lockheed’s F-35, shows every promise of becoming a success as the world’s first operational stealth fighter.

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Boeing’s B-1B was superb as a supersonic strategic bomber, and is having a good “second career” as a conventional bomb-dropper. And the AC-130U? The Army officer who sang its praises to the Air Force Times earlier this month was right: The “Spooky” can fly farther and loiter longer than the A-10 Warthog – and carries more ammunition to boot.

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BUT... When it comes to providing cost-effective close air support to troops on the ground, the A-10 remains king of the heap. At $9 million apiece, the replacement cost of the A-10 is cheaper than that of any other aircraft the Air Force has proposed to replace its CAS mission.

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And the A-10’s $17,716 cost-per-flight-hour is 21% below that of the next-cheapest F-16... Nearly half the cost of an hour’s flight-time in the F-35... Two-and-a-half times cheaper than the AC-130... And three times cheaper than the B-1B.

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And the Air Force’s “flavor of the month,” the multi-mission F-35? There’s no denying the advantages of flying an “invisible airplane” in air-to-air combat. But on CAS missions, the F-35 costs 80% more than the A-10 to fly – and carries only 13% the ammunition load of the A-10. Meaning it costs more, but can shoot less.

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These are the facts. If Congress bases its decision to keep, or kill, the A-10 based on these facts, there’s really only one conclusion it can come to: Congress must save the A-10.

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Now... What does this mean to investors? We’ve laid out the details for you in this column: http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/05/26/congress-saves-the-a-10-warthog-for-now.aspx

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In a nutshell, keeping the A-10 means more revenues for Boeing, which is upgrading the wings on more than 100 A-10s as we speak, a project worth several hundred million dollars to Boeing. It means millions of dollars more for Northrop Grumman, which is the Pentagon’s principal contractor for A-10 maintenance.

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Those maintenance costs, plus upkeep and related flying costs, will cost the Air Force $3.5 billion over the next five years. That’s $3.5 billion that will not be available to spend on new F-35s from Lockheed Martin. And for investors that’s really the key takeaway from all this: If the A-10 lives, Lockheed Martin loses $3.5 billion in potential sales.

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