More cash for less flash: Reaper UAVs said much more costly than manned aircraft

The MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle isn't cheaper to buy than some manned military aircraft it's frequently compared with; the UAV is from two to six times more costly, Winslow Wheeler writes in Time Magazine's Battleland blog.

Media reports cite a per-unit cost from $4 million to $5 million for the Reaper, but they're wrong, writes Wheeler, the director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

His contentions go like this: the ground components for the Reaper must be included, and a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) consists of four vehicles, not one, so the Air Force cites a unit cost for a Reaper CAP, or four aircraft with sensors, at $60.3 million in 2012 dollars. Counting development and other costs, an individual Reaper costs $30.2 million, or $120.8 million for a CAP of four, which may be an underestimate.

Meanwhile, estimates for the F16-C per-unit cost range from $27.2 million in 2012 dollars to $55 million per copy. For the A-10, the Government Accountability Office cited a total program unit cost (including research and development) at $18.8 million in 2012 dollars, Wheeler writes.

Reader Comments

Wed, Mar 7, 2012 Bachsman54 San Diego

Whenever I see articles like this I go to the source to see what their hidden agenda is. And I also look for that flashing red light comment that they are "non-partisan, non-political, etc." That's a dead giveaway that it's a left-wing hack job organization that will distort any and all "rsearch" to fit their pre-conceived agenda.I found CDI is no more accurate than the National Enquirere or Michael Moore's "Documentaries". I found a couple of ineresting articles. One is entitled: "The Anti-War Movement Arsenal and lists the CDI as one of the "tools" in that arsenal. (link is: and another is titled: "The Anti-Defense Lobby Part 1: Center for Defense Information" at Both point out that the CDI was founded and is funded entirely by anti-military whack-job left wing extremists hiding under the guise of "former military watchdogs". This articel is case in point. They say nothing about what it would cost to have a F-35 perform the same mission as a single Reaper. How long could it stay over a target? 24 hours? 30 hours? 36+ hours? (imagine THAT fuel cost!) How much does it take to train a pilot for an F-35 compared to a pilot or sensor operator for a Reaper? How much Intel can the F-35 provide for a given area as it flies over at Mach 2? Different missions = different costs. I could say a screwdriver costs less than a hammer but when I need to pound in a nail, that screwdriver will cost me a whole lot more time and effort.

Wed, Mar 7, 2012 Cowboy Joe

Considerin' that the UAV's have got to fly in two pieces - one part in the air and one critical piece ... the pilot ... still on the ground ... somewhere halfway around the world ... yep, those UAVs might just be a pup's tail more expensive. But the kicker is, when you lose one, you don't lose that one critical element of technology ...the pilot. Those things are prety darn expensive to replace.

Fri, Mar 2, 2012

How about the cost of the F-16 and F-18 when you add in their development costs and ground components?

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Your Name:(optional)
Your Email:(optional)
Your Location:(optional)
Please type the letters/numbers you see above