The Two Sort Of New Air Force One Jets Now To Cost Nearly The Price Of A Nimitz Class Carrier

Few defense programs have gotten as much attention in recent years as the Air Force One replacement program. This is mainly due to President Trump’s persistent claims about directly working a deal with Boeing for the aircraft that would save huge sums of money. These assertions have repeatedly proven to be hollow and now it is becoming clear that the program’s price tag has actually leaped considerably. 

Marcus Weisgerber of Defense One has done an outstanding job on keeping on top of the ever-morphing Air Force One replacement program. In his latest piece, he notes that the entire program cost, which includes infrastructure projects and a bevy on ancillary items, is now pegged at a whopping $5.3B. This is roughly a third more than the figure the Air Force has touted in the past for the program. But what’s even more concerning is that the cost of the planes themselves and the conversion of them into militarized VC-25Bs, now stands at $4.68B. 

This is approximately $780 million more than the long-standing program cost estimate of around $3.9B that the Air Force had routinely given out to the public. The figure that the Air Force gave to Defense One, $5.3B, is also curious. 

In 2018, the White House said that Trump’s purported deal with Boeing had shaved approximately $1.5B off the total cost, but The War Zone and others noted that the final price tag had not actually changed from the Air Force’s previous estimate. However, $3.9B plus $1.5B is $5.4B, which is very close to the estimate of what the two new VC-25Bs will cost, inclusive of all necessary related items, which can only further call into question the claim from the Trump Administration that the program is less expensive in any way now than it was last year.

That $4.68B figure is for just two aircraft, both of which aren’t even exactly new. They have been baking in the Mojave Desert for years. The two 747-8is were built for the defunct Russian airline Transero, which went bankrupt in 2015. Aeroflot bought up most its assets, but had no interest in the 747-8is. So, Boeing flew the jets to Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville where they have been stored in the open ever since. 

A photo of the two orphaned 747-8is that are slated to become Air Force One. The images were taken on March 24th, 2019 and show some activity around one of the aircraft. , Matt Hartman/
Matt Hartman/

After Trump took office and made the program a pet project, it was announced that those planes would be used as the base aircraft for the future Air Force Ones and were bought from Boeing at some incredible price that remains undisclosed. 

Although the Air Force One mission is critical, procuring two aircraft at a price tag that approaches the cost of a Nimitz class nuclear supercarrier sure seems concerning. On top of buying the not really new planes, critical capabilities have been cut to save money, including the VC-25B’s ability to refuel in flight from Air Force tankers—a feature the 30-year-old VC-25As that are to be replaced have. 

Taking the lower figure for the aircraft, their conversion, and entry into service, these planes should surpass the B-2A Spirit stealth bomber as the most expensive aircraft ever built. In fact, according to Defense One, their combined cost, including infrastructure projects and some other ancillary costs associated with the program, exceeds what the Navy says a Nimitz class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier historically costs—about $4.5B. 

Even the highest estimates on the last Nimitz class carrier built give the ship a $6.2B price tag, not even a billion more than the Air Force One replacement program. The larger figure that Defense One puts forward, which includes infrastructure and other projects associated with the aircraft, is also roughly the same cost of two Virginia class nuclear fast attack submarines. 

Rendering of VC-25Bs., Boeing

Nothing about Presidential transport is cheap, especially when it comes to flying. These planes have to be survivable against electromagnetic pulses and need to be equipped with the latest defensive and communications suites. Lots of other specific pieces of hardware and systems also have to be integrated and those systems need power and some also need cooling. It all has to work together properly as not just the safety of the President is on the line, but also the credibility of America’s nuclear deterrent. If the President is onboard Air Force One during a crisis, that’s where he or she would order the National Command Authority to execute a nuclear strike. 

But still, we are talking about such huge sums of money here that it’s all just a little perplexing. The real program cost appears to be $5.3B at this point. For two aircraft and the support infrastructure to sustain them. The sticker price of a new Boeing 747-8i is roughly $400M. So, we are talking about six and a half times the cost of the aircraft to outfit them and convert operations over from the earlier 747 derivatives, the VC-25As. But it’s not like the USAF is starting from scratch. Far from it actually.

VC-25A “Air Force One” seen during President Trump’s recent visit to Alabama. , AP

Yes, the 747-8i is significantly different aircraft than the 747-200 first-generation Jumbo Jet derivative it is slated to replace, but the USAF has been upgrading the VC-25As continuously ever since they entered service. They have modern communications and defensive systems and the USAF understands the Presidential airlift mission using the 747 incredibly well. So, it’s not like they are being asked to do something that has never been done or to develop all new subsystems to do it.

Choosing the 747-8i has induced some unique costs. For instance, the custom-built, bunker-like hexagon-shaped hangar that houses the VC-25As at Andrews Air Force Base won’t work for the new planes. The aircraft is slightly too large, so a whole new facility needs to be built. 

The custom built VC-25A hangar at Andrews AFB., Google Earth. 

At this point, the USAF’s investments made to develop a VC-25B aircraft are very unlikely to be ported over to future projects that also use the 747-8i airframe, either. The type will likely go out of production in the coming decade. 24 747-8s are on back order, which equates to roughly four years of work. The prospects for significantly more orders are highly questionable at best. So, by the time the new Air Force Ones enter service, the 747 line could very well be shutting down for good.

The USAF is

looking for a common airframe to replace its C-32A, E-6B, and E-4B aircraft, one which would almost certainly be smaller in size than a 747-8i. This will most likely be based on the KC-46, a 767 derivative that has already been militarized and equipped with defensive systems, secure communications, and more. So, all the VC-25B development costs are a one-shot deal for the USAF. It’s all for just two jets. As such, using Defense One’s numbers, the total program cost spread across the two airframes is now pegged at $2.68B each and $2.34B using the smaller figure associated just with the aircraft themselves. 

It will be interesting to see how the Air Force justifies this enormous price tag and how the costs are actually broken down. But considering how hush-hush things are regarding Air Force One and its configuration, the public may never get a full explanation of why these planes and their entry into service cost nearly as much as a Nimitz class supercarrier.

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