Special Report

The Cheapest Planes in the US Military

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One of the key goals of any defense budget is, ideally, to build the best military capabilities with the lowest investments. Part of this is strategy – when it is necessary to meet threats and when not to overextend – and part is effectively managing resources. While cheaper might not always be better, finding a cost-effective balance that yields the best outcomes is crucial in all military operations.

The U.S. military maintains easily the most expensive fleet of aircraft on the planet compared to any other country, but that is not to say it does not employ many cost-effective planes – many worth less than $100 million per unit. These aircraft serve essential roles and complement the high-value aircraft.

To identify the least 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 35 aircraft with unit prices of less 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.

One of the more famous entries on this list is the A-10 Thunderbolt II, commonly referred to as the Warthog. Valued at around $18 million, the Warthog is known for its durability, firepower, and low-speed, low-altitude attack capabilities. It acts as a vital asset for ground troop support.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon, another essential aircraft, is valued at roughly $27 million per unit. Possessing a mix of air-to-air combat and ground attack capabilities, the fighter jet is used by various nations due to its affordability and continues to be a staple in the U.S. air fleet. (See other aircraft used by the most nations and military forces.)

In contrast to the high-cost stealth fighters and bombers, the aircraft on this list constitute a major component of the U.S. military’s air fleet, often with relatively high numbers of active aircraft (over 280 for the Thunderbolt, about 775 for the Fighting Falcon, and nearly 550 for the Super Hornet), speaking to their cost-effectiveness in allowing for higher inventory. They demonstrate that advanced technology, such as in the case of the F/A-18 Super Hornet, does not necessarily have to drain the budget. (The Super Hornet is among the 26 military aircraft of the future.)

What stands out about this list is that the lesser expensive aircraft of the U.S. military fleet tend to be combat aircraft, fighter jets, and smaller transports. This is in stark contrast to the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, which only had a production run of 21 because each unit is valued at more than $2 billion.

It is also important to consider not just the purchase value of these aircraft, but also the cost to maintain, train, and operate them. All of these factors contribute to the overall affordability.

Click here to see the least expensive planes in the US military.

35. P-8 Poseidon
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $98.15 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 116
> Primary role: Intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, anti-submarine warfare, anti-ship warfare
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

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34. Martin P-3 Orion
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $94.96 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 17
> Primary role: Intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

33. C-130 Hercules Military Transport Aircraft
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $91.23 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 351
> Primary role: Aerial refueling, tactical passenger and cargo airlift
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

32. E-2 Hawkeye Airborne Command and Control Aircraft
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $88.68 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 73
> Primary role: Airborne Command and Control, Battle Space Management
> Primary contractors: Northrop Grumman

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31. Bombardier Express E-11
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $86.75 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 4
> Primary role: Airborne early warning, electronic warfare, transport
> Primary contractors: Airbus Military

30. F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $77.97 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 547
> Primary role: Multi-role attack and fighter aircraft.
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

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29. C-40 Clipper
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $75.72 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 17
> Primary role: High-priority personnel transport
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

28. C-37A (Gulfstream V) and C/NC-37B (Gulfstream 550)
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $75.11 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 0
> Primary role: Passenger transport
> Primary contractors: CLS – Gulfstream

27. UC-35 Citation
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $74.91 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 38
> Primary role: Passenger and cargo airlift
> Primary contractors: DynCorps; Valair and Pratt & Whitney.

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26. EA-18G Growler Airborne Electronic Attack Aircraft
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $74.29 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 152
> Primary role: Airborne Electronic Attack
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

25. KC-135 Stratotanker
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $73.44 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 388
> Primary role: Aerial refueling and airlift
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

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24. EP-3 Ares II
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $67.75 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 11
> Primary role: Multi-Intelligence reconnaissance aircraft
> Primary contractors: Lockheed Martin

23. C-2A Greyhound Logistics Aircraft
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $44.29 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 30
> Primary role: Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) aircraft
> Primary contractors: Northrop Grumman

22. C-20 Gulfstream Logistics Aircraft
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $43.47 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 6
> Primary role: Worldwide passenger and cargo airlift
> Primary contractors: Gulfstream Aerospace and M7 Aerospace

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21. Leonardo C-27 Spartan
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $43.37 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 7
> Primary role: Transport
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

20. AV-8B Harrier II
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $35.37 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 87
> Primary role: Combat aircraft
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

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19. F/A-18 A-D Hornet
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $33.58 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 236
> Primary role: Multi-role attack and fighter aircraft
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

18. Bombadier Dash 8
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $32.66 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 20
> Primary role: Special mission, transport
> Primary contractors: de Havilland

17. F-16A/B Fighting Falcon Fighter
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $27.25 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 775
> Primary role: Adversary fighter
> Primary contractors: General Dynamics Corp., and Lockheed Martin

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16. Boeing RC-135
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $21.21 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 22
> Primary role: Intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

15. C-146 Wolfhound
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $19.04 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 20
> Primary role: MEDEVAC, transport, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance
> Primary contractors: Dornier

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14. T-45C Goshawk Training Aircraft
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $18.88 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 189
> Primary role: Training platform for Navy/Marine Corps pilots
> Primary contractors: The Boeing Company

13. MC-12W Liberty
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $18.39 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 40
> Primary role: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance
> Primary contractors: L-3 Communications

12. A-10C Thunderbolt II
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $18.17 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 286
> Primary role: Close air support, airborne forward air control, combat search and rescue
> Primary contractors: Fairchild Republic

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11. U-28A Draco
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $17.85 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 35
> Primary role: Transport
> Primary contractors: Pilatus Aircraft

10. Fairchild C-26 Metroliner
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $15.90 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 24
> Primary role: Transport
> Primary contractors: Fairchild Swearingen

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9. M-28 Skytruck
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $15.32 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 5
> Primary role: Close-air support, transport, search and rescue
> Primary contractors: Sikorsky

8. Airbus Military CN-235
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $9.04 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 5
> Primary role: Close air support, ground attack, search and rescue, transport, MEDEVAC
> Primary contractors: Airbus Military

7. Beechcraft 1900
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $8.47 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 6
> Primary role: Airborne early warning, electronic warfare, transport
> Primary contractors: Beechcraft

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6. DHC-6 Twin Otter
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $7.14 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 1
> Primary role: MEDEVAC, transport
> Primary contractors: de Havilland

5. UC-12 Huron Logistics Aircraft
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $7.04 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 324
> Primary role: Light passenger and cargo airlift
> Primary contractors: Raytheon Aircraft Company

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4. Learjet 35
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $5.96 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 19
> Primary role: Transport
> Primary contractors: Learjet

3. Beechcraft C-12 Huron
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $3.71 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 324
> Primary role: Transport
> Primary contractors: Beechcraft

2. Cessna 208 Caravan
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $3.28 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 2
> Primary role: Transport
> Primary contractors: Cessna Aircraft Company

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1. T-34C Turbomentor Training Aircraft
> Est. cost per unit, 2023: $1.12 million
> Active in U.S. Military: 17
> Primary role: Pilot proficiency, low safe mission, and other aircraft support services for the fleet
> Primary contractors: Raytheon Aircraft Company

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