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According to the Department of Defense, total spending on military programs through fiscal year 2013 is estimated to exceed $1.6 trillion. This figure is cited in the Selected Acquisition Report that the agency submitted to Congress in March.
The total program costs reflect both money that's already been spent and money projected to be spent, in dollars unadjusted for inflation.
Based on the information in the report, CNBC.com presents the 10 most expensive military programs. Included are the insights of Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. Wheeler worked on national security issues for such senators as David Pryor and Pete Domenici.
Read ahead to see the most expensive U.S. military programs currently under way.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 29 Nov. 2012
Total program cost: $37.4 billion
A littoral combat ship operates in areas close to the seashore. Its purpose is to work in conjunction with the mammoth vessels of the Navy's Aegis Fleet, which can't exactly be parked next to the beach. The first ship, the USS Freedom, was commissioned in 2008.
"This basically is a frigate-sized ship intended to operate in shallow waters," Wheeler said in an interview. He noted that the cost of the program has more than doubled since it was first proposed.
Total program cost: $40.6 billion
The Trident II is an intercontinental-range ballistic missile launched by submarine. Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, it was meant to improve upon the Trident I missile in terms of capacity and payload, and it can be used for a pre-emptive attack.
"Although it's expensive, it's been a highly successful program," Wheeler said. "Both the submarine and the missile part of the system have been around a long time, and although they're expensive, they have done what they're supposed to do."
He added that four of the submarines were converted to launch cruise missiles against targets in Libya earlier this year.
Total program cost: $42.5 billion
The CVN-78 is also known as a Ford-class aircraft carrier, whose namesake is World War II naval veteran and former President Gerald Ford. The keel of the lead ship was laid in November 2009, and when it's completed, it will feature the Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launching System.
"The Navy has designed high cost into it with what it calls a 'smart ship design'," Wheeler said. "It reduces the size of the crew but increases the technology in the ship, in an effort for the technology rather than crew to maintain the ship."
Total program cost: $51 billion
The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is a twin engine fighter jet with a design based on McDonnell Douglas' F/A-18 Hornet. It can carry air-to-air missiles, and it comes equipped with a 20-millimeter gun and five external fuel tanks.
"This is a redesign of the previous version of the F-18," Wheeler said. "The per-unit cost about doubled compared to the earlier version of the F-18."
Total program cost: $52 billion
The KC-46 is an aircraft used for aerial refueling, based on Boeing's KC-767.
"That's the new aerial tanker," Wheeler said. "It replaces the 40-year-old KC-135, and it's a fairly young new program."
Total program cost: $53.5 billion
The V-22 Osprey is an aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capability, as well as short takeoff and landing capability. In other words, it takes off like a helicopter and flies like an airplane.
The Osprey is used by both the Air Force and the Marines. It's been deployed in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.
Total program cost: $63.8 billion
The F135 is a turbofan engine used on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II single-engine fighter. It has a conventional thrust variant and a short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant.
"This is a high thrust fighter engine that won't be useable in other fighter aircraft," Wheeler said. "The Marine Corps' version of the F-35 required the engine to have certain size and performance characteristics, which are not good for high-altitude, high-speed aircraft."
Total program cost: $87.3 billion
The DDG-51 class of guided missile destroyers is the first built by the Navy to use the Aegis weapons system and the SPY-1D radar system. The ship is capable of anti-air, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.
"It's been in production since the 1980s, and the hulls are becoming ever more expensive even in terms of constant dollars," Wheeler said. "The new Flight III DDG-51s are projected to cost $2.4 billion per ship by the Congressional Budget Office."
Total program cost: $126.2 billion
The Ballistic Missile Defense System is intended to protect the U.S. from an attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. It's in the development stage, and plans may include the integration of high-altitude, laser and space-based missile defenses.
"We're still in the initial developmental testing stage," Wheeler said. "They've got a long ways to go so that in actual combat conditions it can truly work. This is primarily for medium-range ballistic missiles from countries like North Korea and Iran."
Total program cost: $331.9 billion
The F-35 Lightning II is part of the Joint Strike Fighter Program, which is meant to phase out older generations of jets. It has three variants: the F-35A, the F-35B and the F-35C. These jets have conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) capability, STOVL capability and carrier-based capability, respectively.
The Joint Strike Fighter Program has encountered numerous cost overruns. In June, the Government Accountability Office released a report called "Joint Strike Fighter: DOD Actions Needed to Further Enhance Restructuring and Address Affordability Risks," in which it stated that the program might cost over $1 trillion to operate.