Joint Strike Fiction: the Comparative Costs of Superweapons

Posted: August 3, 2012 by kdatherton in Uncategorized

Let’s say you were tasked with designing a new, evolutionary approach to delivering kinetics via the sky. Ideally, it could be piloted by a single person, would feature an incredibly powerful senor array, and utilize the best available in computer assistance. How much would it take to bring such an idea from fruition to, say, a Mk VII version?  According to SoldierSystems, such a weapons platform would cost $1,584,302,000, and would have been designed in a cave by Tony Stark.

The Completely Bearable Costs of Being Iron Man

The Completely Bearable Costs of Being Iron Man

(The above figure doesn’t include Tony Stark’s mansion or assorted luxury automobiles; being piloted exclusively by billionaire playboys is not an ideal requirement for revolutionary military equipment).

As fictional super-weapons go, Iron Man’s costs are not insurmountable, and his technological conceits relatively minor: a personal chest-mounted nuclear reactor and multiple jets are a leap, but at least an understandable one.

The advantages of such a system are tremendous. Iron Man carries an arsenal powerful enough to put him on footing with godlike aliens, and versatile enough to dispatch with everything from Afghan warlords to drone swarms to giant flying killer space whales. The flight range is such that, deploying from the continental US, he is capable of circumnavigating the globe under his own power and without need for refueling of any sort.

Iron Man armor is also a surprisingly versatile platform, capable of mission-specific customization and mounting a variety of different payload systems. This bodes well for long-term viability as a military asset, as it largely bypasses the payload/platform debate.

Also, it’s compact size combined with pilot-protection make it possible to operate on missions where normally delivery systems that powerful would be unwieldy. Iron Men would not be limited to air combat, and missions could range from close support (airborne or otherwise) down to the “capture” part of counter-terror “kill or capture” missions. (Having a suit of armor impervious to most small arms fire that can also fly makes extraction of individuals much, much easier.)

Even assuming Iron Man is only tasked as an evolutionary support aircraft, he comes across as much more cost effective than the latest real-world attempt at world-conquering genius flyers. The F-35 program has currently budgeted $382 billion for an initial order of 2,443 jets, giving a unit price of (roughly) $156,365,125/fighter. For the price of a single F-35, you could get just shy of 99 Iron Men! (Worth noting: the Mk I Iron Man was developed by necessity in a cave in Afghanistan, with supplies provided at no cost to Stark Industries,* which is an unfair advantage. Also, yes, fiction.) As superweapons go, Iron Men become a steal, especially when you contrast the durability and low maintenance costs of an Arc Reactor against the projected lifetime expenditure on the F-35.

But perhaps even the 1.5 billion dollar price tag is a bit much,** and you’re less interested in global deploy-ability and air-to-air fighting in your GWOT than you are in having dedicated and versatile urban combat support. If that is the mission, one could certainly do worse than copying Batman’s arsenal.

Batman is 87% mansion and batcave

Batman is 87% mansion and batcave

The lion’s share of the cost of being Batman comes from a fully-functioning mansion and a suite of vehicles designed for urban combat, with the training and armor coming at a surprisingly modest fee for the HUMINT capabilities provided.

Since it is hard to imagine a future where the human intelligence and stealth will not be valued, Batmen provide a very light-impact, small footprint force that can focus primarily on anti-terror campaigns (anti-corruption, while not strictly included, tends to be a personal hobby for such individuals, and should be seen as an included bonus.) Should the situation necessitate an escalation of violence, Batmen (and women) come with included arsenal featuring both armored urban transport and a ground support VTOL. The armor, mobility, stealth, and dedication to justice that a Batman provides come at a price, but when it comes to COIN operations, surely one Batman is worth approximately 100 MRAPs. If the US were to replace our total MRAP fleet with Batmen (acknowledging that while their roles overlap somewhat they are not interchangeable), it would mean 200 active Batmen now fighting the GWOT (and, unfortunately, 400 parents tragically lost after screenings of Zorro).

At this point, it’s fair to point out that all this talk of relative cost and bargaining doesn’t really fit the idea of superweapons. The Death Star, near and dear to this blog’s heart (and the foundation of the Tarkin Doctrine) would cost

At 2012 prices, about $852,000,000,000,000,000. Or roughly 13,000 times the world’s GDP.**

according to the fine economists at Centive. Or, in superweapon terms, one Death Star costs the same as 5,448,785,335 F-35s.


*Okay yes, but through weird spoilery mechanics. At no cost to Tony Stark, at least.
**If strength increase is the primary reason for wanting an Iron Man, it looks like Raytheon’s Sarcos XOS 2 military exoskeleton will cost about 1/1,000th of Iron Man armor. It can’t fly, though.

  1. Mike says:

    I love your website it makes me happy in my pants…(:

  2. Jarrod Hayes says:

    Money isn’t all though. An Iron man type system would also have to overcome human physiology…

  3. […] attempt a military program more expensive? We have to wade into science fiction to find an example: the Joint Strike Fight is more expensive than Iron Man, but it is cheaper than a Death Star. Except, wait, the Obama administration already ruled that one […]

  4. […] attempt a military program more expensive? We have to wade into science fiction to find an example: the Joint Strike Fight is more expensive than Iron Man, but it is cheaper than a Death Star. Except, wait, the Obama administration already ruled that one […]

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