Military Embedded Systems

The global market for fighter planes and bombers


August 30, 2023

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG. Last time, we looked at the market for ground combat vehicles and tanks. Now, it’s time to look at the second largest volume platform market in the military: fighter planes and bombers. Let’s start at the top. According to Flight Global, there were about 53,250 military aircraft in the world in 2021. The U.S. flies about 25% of that total (13,250), Russia flies 8% (4,170), and China flies 6% (3,280). This includes fighters, bombers, tankers, cargo planes, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) planes, and helicopters. Keep in mind that these numbers move around. Military aircraft crash all the time, and Russia has lost about 175 aircraft in Ukraine in 16 months.

According to Global Firepower, the U.S. operates 38.9% (1,914) of all fighter planes in the world. That suggests that there are 4,920 fighter planes flying around today (1,914/0.389= 4,920). Number 2 is China at 24.4% (1,199), number 3 is Russia at 15.7% (773), number 4 is India at 11.7% (577) and number 5 is North Korea at 9.3% (458). At the bottom end, Mexico has three fighter planes (1980s vintage F-5 Tigers, probably retired by now), the Republic of the Congo has two (1980s vintage Russian Su-25s), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has one (a 1960s vintage Russian MIG-23). I suspect that these six aircraft have been hangar queens since acquisition, and just rolled-out on national holidays. Out of the 195 countries in the world, 94 fly some version of the fighter plane. So, let’s look at U.S. and European fighters in service, their RCS (radar cross section), their cost, and the pending orders for those planes. RCS is an indicator of the plane’s survivability in a fight, so that’s becoming more important as enemy radar systems and missiles become more capable. Generally speaking, any airplane with an RCS over 1 square meter (m^2) is not considered stealthy. The numbers below come from numerous respectable websites. The F-16 Fighting Falcon is a 4G (4th generation) fighter and about 4,600 have been built since 1976. According to Lockheed-Martin, more than 3,000 are still being flown by 25 countries today. They cost about $63 Million each.The F-16 RCS ranges between 1.2 and 5 m^2 since it does not have an internal weapons bay. When a fighter plane carries missiles and bombs under its wings, the image on a radar screen is much bigger. The F-16 is still in production with 128 planes on order, and an order for another 20 planes coming soon.

To read more Warfare Evolution Blogs by Ray Alderman, click here. The Eurofighter Typhoon is a 4G fighter and about 589 have been built since 1994. About 570 are still being flown by ninee countries. They cost about $124 million each and have an RCS of 0.5 to 1.2 m^2 since they carry weapons under their wings too. Over the next two years, orders for 150 to 200 new Typhoons could develop from Spain, Germany and other present users. The F-15 Eagle is an early 4G bomb-truck/fighter-plane that can carry ove 13 tons of weapons. More than 1,700 have been built since 1972 and they cost about $90 million each (for the new version, the F-15EX). More than 960 are still flown by seven countries today, and those older versions had an RCS of about 25m^2 with all those explosive goodies hanging under the wings. The new F-15EX has conformal fuel tanks, an internal weapons bay, and radar absorbing materials (RAM) reducing the RCS significantly. The plane is still a 1980s airframe and the engineers at Boeing have put as much lipstick on it as they can. Some websites claim about 1 m^2 RCS for the F-15EX. The U.S. Air Force has ordered 144 of the new version, but those numbers have been moving down to 104 and then to 80. Israel is ordering 25. So, about 100 are on order. The F/A-18 is a Navy 4.5G fighter plane. More than 2,000 have been built since 1995 and about 820 are still being flown by seven countries today. They cost about $65 million each and have an RCS of 1 to 10 m^2, depending on what you hang under the wings. Boeing will shut down the F/A-18 production line in 2025, after they build the last eight planes on order. The 4.5G Rafale is another European fighter plane. The data is sketchy here, but it looks like more than 450 have been built since 1986 and most of those are still operational in five countries. They cost about $115 million each and have an RCS of 1 m^2 (before you hang the weapons under the wings). There might be 100 Rafales on order from present users (India just bought 26). Now, let’s look at the last 4G European fighter plane, the Gripen. About 300 have been built since 1996 and are operated by seven countries today. It has an RCS of 1.5 m^2 (before weapons are hung under the wings) and they cost about $85 million each. Give or take a few crashes, it looks like more than 200 are still flying today, from what I could find. And, 36 Gripens are on order from Brazil. Next is the F-22 Raptor, the first 5G fighter plane. Since 1997, 195 have been built at a price of $143 million each. Only about 120 F-22s are still flying today and the U.S. is the only operator. This fighter has an RCS of 0.0001 m^2 (about the size of a bumble bee) and production was terminated in 2011. It has an internal weapons bay for missiles and bombs, but can carry weapons under the wings. Finally, we have the F-35 Lightning, the second 5G fighter plane. As of August, 960 have been built since it was first produced in 2006. Most of those are still flying (eight planes have crashed in incidents). The initial price of the F-35 was $221 Million each, but the latest batch is coming off the line at about $80 Million each. This fighter has an RCS of 0.0015 m^2 (about the size of a golf ball). It has an internal weapons bay that can carry 5,000 pounds, and other weapons can be carried under the wings (in beast mode). Today, 16 countries fly the F-35 and there are more than 150 planes on order. Lockheed-Martin can only produce about 156 planes per year and many new orders are coming in, so they are looking at expanding production capacity. For your information, there are about 300,000 individual parts in an F-35 made by 1,700 suppliers (according to Lockheed-Martin), and there are 9.1 million lines of code running on the onboard computer systems. That gives a software-to-hardware ratio of 30.33 to 1 (if you consider each line of code as a part). Adding all these up, we count more than 500 fighter planes on order, but I could have missed a few here and there. According to Mordor Intelligence (market research), the market for fighter planes is $45.6 Billion in 2023, growing at 3.7% to $54.8 billion by 2028. But all that could be changed by NGAD, F/A-XX, FCAS, SCAF, GCAP, KAAN, AMCA, and KF-21. We could see thousands of fighter planes built over the next 10 years. NGAD (next generation air dominance) is an Air Force program to design and build a new 6th generation fighter plane, to replace the 5G F-22. It might be manned or unmanned, it might have an RCS the size of a mosquito (0.000001 m^2), and it might cost about $300 million per plane. The Air Force wants 200 of these fighters right away. The first prototype flew in 2020, so NGAD is not a paper tiger. Lockheed-Martin and Boeing are competing to make the NGAD (Northrop Grumman dropped out of the competition in July). The Air Force will issue contracts for NGAD fighter production in 2024. F/A-XX is a U.S. Navy program to design and build a 6G fighter plane, to replace the F/A-18 fighters now out of production. It will have many of the features of the NGAD fighter, but the Navy is being very secretive about its capabilities and the cost per plane. All we know is that it will be painted blue. FCAS (Future Combat Air System) is a program to design and build the next 6G Eurofighter aircraft. France, Germany, and Spain are the primary participants. All they have done so far is build a model made from plastic and plywood, and argue about which country will get the jobs to build which parts of the plane. SCAF (Systemme de combat aerien du futur) is an umbrella project including FCAS, wingman drones, weapons, and other stuff. Just think of it as the French name for FCAS to avoid confusion. GCAP (Global Combat Air Programme) is a program to design and build a 6G fighter plane for Northern Europe and the Pacific. England, Italy, Japan, and Sweden are the primary participants. They are smashing together the BAE Systems Tempest and the Mitsubishi F-X designs, into a single airframe. Since the participating countries are surrounded by water, it looks like the primary mission for this plane is maritime defense. KAAN is the 5G TF-X fighter plane project being developed by Turkey and Azerbaijan. A prototype has been built and the plane fired-up its engines in January. It has not flown yet, but the pictures and specifications are on the web. The price is about $100 million per plane, according to the latest estimates. And, the RCS is being quoted as 0.1 m^2 since it has an internal weapons bay. Pakistan may join this project soon. AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) is a 5G fighter program in India. They want 125 planes for their air force and navy. No other countries have signed-up for the project at this point. They have built a model and but not a prototype, so we have no idea where the cost and RCS number will come in. KF-21 Boramae is a 4.5G fighter plane being developed by South Korea and Indonesia. Several prototypes have been built. The first test flight lasted 33 minutes in 2022. Manufacturing will begin on 2026 with 40 planes delivered by 2028. The South Korean Air Force wants 120 aircraft. The plane will be available for export (Poland is interested). The cost of the plane will be between $80 million and $100 million each. The RCS is reported to be 1 m^2 but it doesn’t have an internal weapons bay, so it will look bigger when weapons are strapped under the wings. Now that you are excited about the incredible technology and money going into 6G fighter projects, it’s time to burst your bubble. Artificial Intelligence simulators are already working on 7G fighter planes, so NGAD, F/A-XX, FCAS, GCAP, KAAN, AMCA, and KF-21 could be antiquated as soon as they go into service. 7G fighters might be invisible (Klingon cloaking device: an extension of today’s electronic warfare systems). They may have anti-gravity propulsion systems (like the flying saucers we recovered at Roswell and took to Area-51 in 1947). They might be able to go into space and reach any place on the planet in 30 minutes (like the Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle). They might fire plasma or photon torpedoes (an extension of our microwave and laser directed-energy weapons). The aircraft might not be made from aluminum or titanium: it might be made from Nitinol, a metal that is impervious to heat and returns to its original shape after being bent (yes, we have Nitinol today). That will make the 7G fighter plane self-healing if it does get hit by enemy fire or crashes. After doing all that, AI will develop 8th and 9th generation fighter planes. Maybe they can travel in different dimensions and be anywhere on the planet in less than a second, and be armed with reverberating carbonizers with mutate capacity, that can completely disassemble any targets (soldiers, aircraft, buildings, ships, tanks, rivers, mountains, etc) into their fundamental atomic elements with one short pulse (IMD weapons: instantaneous molecular decomposition). Progress is being made on many of the technologies for 8G, and 9G fighter planes. Meanwhile, you can find pictures and images of the NGAD, F/A-XX, FCAS, GCAP (Tempest and F-X), KAAN, AMCA, and KF-21 planes on the web. They do look impressive, fast, sleek, and formidable.  NGAD is planned to go into service in 2030, F/A-XX in 2030-2035, FCAS in 2040, GCAP in 2035, KAAN in the 2030s, AMCA in 2030s, and KF-21 in 2026. If you look at the numbers of European fighters made (Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen), you will see that none of them have been produced in any significant volume. So, my bet is that the FCAS and GCAP programs have to merge, to get any economies of scale. When you look at the U.S. fighters made (F-15, F-16, F/A-18, and now the F-35), they enjoyed economies of scale, made in the thousands, and the prices have come down significantly. However, I also think that the Pentagon, under budgetary pressure from Congress, will eventually force the NGAD and F/A-XX programs together to some degree. While the airframes might be different, they could use common engines, weapons, avionics, radios, radar, display panels, and pilot ejection seats. Hard to say what will happen to the KAAN, AMCA, and KF-21 at this point. Before you go, let’s take a look at long-range bombers. I had to scrounge through many sources to find these numbers, so take them as a rough estimate. There are about 508 bomber aircraft in the world today, flown by only three countries: the U.S., Russia, and China. The U.S. flies 35% (141), Russia flies 34% (137), and China flies 31% (120). The U.S. built 744 B-52 bombers, designed in the 1950s, and about 76 are still flying today. They have been upgraded many times over the years,  have an RCS of about 100 m^2, and cost about $84 million each. The U.S. also built 100 B-1 Lancer bombers, designed in the 1970s, and 45 are still in the fleet. They have an RCS of 10m^2 and cost about $270 million each. Designed in the 1980s, 21 B-2 Spirit bombers were built, and 20 are flying in the fleet today. They have an RCS of 0.0001 m^2 and cost about $280 million each. Out of the 500+ TU-95 Russian bombers built, only 55 of these propeller-driven planes are still in service. Propellers love to reflect radar waves, so the RCS is probably bigger than 100 m^2. Russia built 311 TU-22 bombers, designed in 1959, and 66 are still flying today. It’s a funky-looking airplane and probably has an RCS of 10 to 25 m^2. The most modern Russian bomber is the TU-160 from the 1980s. They built 36 and 16 still fly today. They look like the B-1 bomber, so the RCS is probably close to 10 m^2. There are no reliable RCS numbers for these old Russian planes. China built about 230 H-6 bombers, designed in late 1950s, and 120 are flying today. The H-6 is a Chinese knockoff of the Russian TU-16, so it probably has an RCS of a B-52 (close to 100 m^2). As for new bomber designs, Northrop-Grumman is building the new B-21 Raider bomber. It will have an RCS of about 0.00001 m^2 (the size of a mosquito) and will cost about $750 million each, according to the latest estimates. The Air Force wants 200 of these planes. At this point, six have been built and first flight tests are scheduled for this year. China is developing their new H-20 bomber. It’s a carbon copy of the U.S. B-2 bomber (flying wing), so it probably has a similar RCS (0.0001 m^2), depending on how they hide the engine intakes, the exhaust nozzles, and how good their radar-absorbent coating works. The Russians are all tangled up in the Ukraine war, so they have no new bombers on the drawing board. As you can see, there are a lot of old fighter planes and bombers flying today, so that market is going to grow. But, it will grow slowly due to production capacity in each country. Secondly, fighters and bombers are expensive to design and build, so only the U.S. and China have the financial resources to undertake the project individually. Other countries (in Europe and Asia) must join together to fund their designs and production. And fighter planes today cost more than bombers did back in the 1970s. According to Global Data, the global fixed wing military aircraft market will grow from $71.7 billion in 2023 to $110.6 billion by 2033, a growth rate of 4.3%. Back in 2006, electronic systems made up 31% of the cost of the new F-35 fighter plane. That number is going up while the cost of building the airframe is actually coming down. These estimates should give you a general idea about the global fighter and bomber aircraft markets. Next time, we’ll take a look at the worldwide market for navy warships, but I don’t want to over-hype that article too much. If you live near an Air Force base, look up and you might see some  sleek new futuristic airplanes that can fly at three times the speed of sound (MACH-3 or 2,300 MPH). If you live near a naval base and look out to sea, you will see the same old fat slow dull grey ship designs that the world’s navies have been using for more than 100 years. Maybe I should convert the speed of the new warships to MACH numbers (their speed as a percentage of the speed of sound, 761 MPH) in my next article. For example, a U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier can travel at 35MPH (MACH 0.04562). Yea, that will make it more interesting.

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