Special Report

The Most Expensive American Military Planes

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The U.S. Department of Defense has by far the largest budget on the planet, and this budget has likely yielded the strongest and most advanced military the world has ever seen. One of the main investments has been in the military’s air power, which is increasingly important in modern warfare and defense as aircraft allow for the execution of strategic operations around the world. (Also see, America’s 15 planes that fly on aircraft carriers today.)

Of course, these aircraft come at a cost, and the U.S. military has some of the world’s most powerful, innovative, and advanced — but also some of the most expensive — aircraft. 

To identify the most expensive military planes in the U.S. military, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 2023 World Air Forces report from FlightGlobal, an aviation and aerospace industry website, and varying sources for prices of U.S. military aircraft listed in the report. Included in this list are the 24 aircraft with unit prices of more than $100 million – adjusted for inflation to May 2023 using the CPI inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data on primary roles and primary contractors came from various military and historical sources.

Topping the list is the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, which costs roughly $2.15 billion per unit and offers strategic capacity for nuclear deterrence. The stealth technology incorporated in the B-2 design makes it nearly invisible to enemy radar systems, enhancing its operational flexibility. This aircraft is capable of delivering conventional and nuclear ordinances with a high degree of accuracy.

Another top entry is the E-3 Sentry military aircraft, also known as Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS. Manufactured by Boeing, this aircraft is built upon the frame of a Boeing 707 but integrates some of the most sophisticated radar and sensory equipment – all at a unit cost of just over half a billion dollars. 

Noticeably, most of the aircraft on this list are larger ones, meaning, there are not many fighter jets. Most play logistical or support roles. For example, several major transport aircraft make the list as do many that play roles in electronic warfare or early airborne warning. These can be incredibly expensive to outfit with state-of-the-art technology. (Here are the 26 military aircraft of the future.)

These aircraft not only represent a hefty share of the U.S. defense budget but demonstrate the nation’s commitment to maintaining superiority in military aviation. Their design and capabilities underscore the importance of airpower in safeguarding national security interests and strategic outlook. 

Here is a look at the most expensive airplanes in the U.S. military.

24. F-35C Lightning II
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $104.71 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 472 (total F-35 count)
> Primary role: Multirole: ground attack, air superiority
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems

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23. CV-22 Osprey
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $105.32 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 71
> Primary role: Special operations forces long-range infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply
> Primary contractors: Bell Textron and Boeing

22. HC-130P/N King
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $106.44 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 38
> Primary role: Rescue platform
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

21. B-52H Stratofortress
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $111.54 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 72
> Primary role: Heavy bomber
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

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20. F-35A Lightning II
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $113.48 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 472 (total F-35 count)
> Primary role: Multirole: ground attack, air superiority
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

19. MC-130J Commando II
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $116.54 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 59
> Primary role: Infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of special operations forces by airdrop or airland, air refueling of SOF helicopter/tilt rotor aircraft
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

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18. EC-130J Commando Solo
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $126.34 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 7
> Primary role: Airborne information operations broadcasts
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

17. U-2 Dragon Lady
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $131.95 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 26
> Primary role: high-altitude reconnaissance
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

16. Boeing C-32
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $134.20 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 4
> Primary role: Transport
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

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15. AC-130W Stinger II
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $140.12 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 3
> Primary role: Close air support and air interdiction with associated collateral missions
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

14. F-22 Raptor
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $146.85 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 177
> Primary role: Air dominance, multi-role fighter
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin, Boeing

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13. E-6B Mercury Airborne Command Post
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $157.06 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 16
> Primary role: Communications relay for fleet ballistic missile submarines (A and B models) and airborne command post for U.S. Strategic forces (B model)
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

12. KC-10 Extender
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $164.71 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 40
> Primary role: Aerial tanker and transport
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

11. EC-130H Compass Call
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $178.49 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 9
> Primary role: Electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses and offensive counter information
> Primary contractors: BAE Systems and L3 Communications

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10. MC-130H Combat Talon II
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $183.69 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 10
> Primary role: Infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of special operations forces
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

9. AC-130J Ghostrider
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $189.41 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 18
> Primary role: Close air support and air interdiction with associated collateral missions
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

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8. KC-46 Pegasus
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $221.22 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 61
> Primary role: Aerial refueling and airlift
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

7. C-5M Super Galaxy
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $273.50 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 52
> Primary role: Outsize cargo transport
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

6. C-17 Globemaster III
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $376.98 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 228
> Primary role: Cargo and troop transport
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

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5. B-1B Lancer
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $399.33 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 43
> Primary role: Long-range, multi-role, heavy bomber
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company, EDO Corporation

4. E-4B
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $415.96 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 4
> Primary role: Airborne operations center
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

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3. E-8C Joint Stars
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $455.46 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 13
> Primary role: Airborne battle management
> Primary contractors: Northrop Grumman

2. E-3 Sentry (AWACS)
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $503.12 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 31
> Primary role: Airborne battle management, command and control
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

1. B-2 Spirit
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $2,145.58 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 18
> Primary role: Ground attack, heavy bomber
> Primary contractors: Northrop Grumman

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