One F-16 For the Price of 2.5 F-35s: Why Jordan’s Newly Ordered Last Gen. Fighters Are the Most Expensive Ever

The long awaited order contracting of modernised F-16 Fighting Falcon fourth generation fighter jets for the Royal Jordanian Air Force was confirmed on January 19, and has been at the centre of major controversy since due to the extraordinarily high price being paid for the aircraft. Twelve F-16s, a lightweight multirole fighter class that first entered service in 1978, are being acquired for $4.21 billion – meaning each airframe and its associated weaponry, spare parts and maintenance equipment will set the Jordanian defence budget back a little over $350 million. The cost has been considered extortionately high not only when compared to other purchases of F-16s in the same Block 70/72 configuration abroad, but also compared to much higher end and more modern fighter classes, with the F-16 being marketed as a low cost aircraft for clients unable to afford its new fifth generation successor the F-35. Taiwan, for example, in 2019 contracted 66 F-16 Block 70/72 airframes under an $8.1 billion contract – meaning it paid $125 million per airframe or just over one third as much per airframe as Jordan did for the very same aircraft. The cost of the Taiwanese acquisition was itself seen as unusually high and controversial both domestically and abroad due to the F-16’s age, weight range and limited capabilities. 

The cost of Jordan’s F-16 acquisition has appeared even more unusual when comparing it to the F-35, which is not only around 60 percent larger, but also technologically three decades ahead with cutting edge stealth capabilities and an engine that puts out 46 percent more thrust. Looking to similar contracts for the export of F-35s with associated parts, armaments, maintenance tools and training, Jordan is shown to be paying far more for last generation fighters than other countries are paying for the latest stealth jets. In 2020 Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak signed a $4.6 billion contract worth $4.6 billion for the acquisition of 32 F-35As from the United States, for a price of $143.75 million per aircraft. Polish F-35s thus cost just 41 percent as much as Jordanian F-16s – and for the same contract value approximately 30 F-35As could have been acquired instead of the 12 F-16s. Finland two years later in 2022 signed a contract to purchase 64 F-35As for $9.4 billion, for a unit cost of $146.88 million per airframe, placing the cost at 42 percent that of Jordan’s F-16s. The difference is even more significant considering that Jordan has already operated F-16s for decades, with 47 currently in service, meaning the transition and investments in weapons, training and maintenance infrastructure should be considerably lower than those for countries introducing an entirely new fighter class as Poland and Finland are with the F-35. 

Jordan’s acquisition is far from isolated among major fighter purchases by Arab states, which have often come with highly unusual price tags. The most notable recent example was Kuwait’s acquisition of 28 Eurofighters for $321 million each, which sparked considerable controversy in the country and led to serious questions being raised by the country’s parliament. The Jordanian case is more unusual still, since not only is the F-16 a much older and lighter aircraft than the Eurofighter, and one with a single rather than twin engine configuration, but it is also an aircraft produced on a much lager scale and by a defence sector which has consistently provided lower prices and higher efficiency than its European rivals. The fact that Jordan’s F-16s are the most costly fighters ever exported, while also being the lowest end Western fighters in production today, is highly irregular and has raised widespread speculation of very substantial state corruption to more than triple the cost of the lightweight American jets. Although such speculation has been common to fighter deals across much of the Arab world, particularly for acquisitions from Europe and the United States, the Jordanian contract has provided by far the most extreme contrast between price and product and is expected to draw the most criticism so far.