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When comparing military equipment, little attention is paid to cost, at least in the popular resources (obviously, military establishments pay close attention to how much they are paying!)

E.g., there are many resources discussing Aircraft of the Battle of Britain, i.e., Spitfire vs Messerschmitt 109, but the production cost is ignored. Specifically, the consensus seems to be that they were evenly matched in battle most of the time. However, given that it took 15,000 man-hours to build a Spitfire 1A and 9,000 to build a Bf 109E, it seems that BF109 was a vastly better plane: Germany should have been able to field 5 bf109's for every 3 Spits.

Note that the reliability of the man-hour numbers above is unclear, which leads me to my question: what were the costs of various military tools? (from rifles to carriers)

This is, of course, too broad, so I will limit the question to fighter aircraft of WW2.

Please note that I am not talking about monetary cost (e.g., £9,500 for a Spit vs RM42,900 for a bf109 - how do you compare currencies in the absence of trade?) - they are very hard to trust in war economies (prices are often determined by government fiat, not market) of different countries (but please feel free to prove me wrong). I am interested in man-hours and other material costs.

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    That might be a noticeable exception, as the Germans overengineered just about everything. For example, the MG39 and MG 42 were several times more expensive and took much longer to produce than the Bren.
    – Jos
    Feb 2 at 6:44
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    @Jos, Yes, same about Tiger. It is unclear if the Tiger's alleged exceptional performance justified its exorbitant cost...
    – sds
    Feb 2 at 6:50
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    Keep in mind that you need men to crew the machines. Having 5 machines to three of the enemy is nice, but how many pilots does each side "produce" and how many are lost when a plane is lost? Being able to produce more material might not always be enough.
    – nvoigt
    Feb 2 at 7:23
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    @sds I'm not sure what is your question. There is a wide consensus that Bf-109 was more cost effective than Spitfire, but on the other hand Spitfire was what Britain had, plus they had more resources available than Germany and frankly less enemies :) Especially after Barbarossa. I'm afraid your question boils down to why Germany did not win the war, and answer is simply they were not that ahead technologically to compensate for the lack of resources of their combined enemies.
    – rs.29
    Feb 2 at 8:03
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    @rs.29 The question is completely clear. It is asking for the actual production costs of various WW2 fighter aircrafts. A good answer would list of couple of fighters, describe their production costs and explain where the data is from and how reliable it is.
    – Arno
    Feb 2 at 10:00

3 Answers 3

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One way to approach this is currency equivalents.

In 1940 the British government pegged the value of the pound to US $4.03

During World War II, the reichsmark had a nominal exchange rate of 2.50 rm to US $1.

Thus, 2.50 reichsmark was equivalent to 1/4.03 (0.2481) British pounds during WW II. Resulting in 1 reichsmark being equivalent to 0.0992556 British pounds, or 1 British pound being equivalent to 10.075 reichsmark.

For convenience, use a 10:1 ratio.

If as you state, a Spitfire cost £9,500 to produce. The equivalent in reichmarks was 95,000 RM, which according to the data in your question was more than double the cost for a Messerschmitt Bf109 which was 42,900 RM.

The other thing to consider is how much expendable slave labor did the Germans use in manufacturing their aircraft and if they did, how much more expensive would the aircraft have been had they paid full price for all labor used in the manufacturing of their aircraft?

Some of the Bf 109 production took place in Nazi concentration camps through slave labor.

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  • It is not obvious that the exchange rate between currencies of countries that do not trade with each other is actually meaningful.
    – sds
    Aug 4 at 16:05
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In comparison, the cost to build a Mustang was around $50k.

Does that make the BF109 'better'? Later BF109's could compete with the Mustang (assuming pilots of similar skill level), as the BF109 was on the defensive, and its short range wasn't an issue.

However, a primary reason the P51 had a high kill ratio against the BF109 was better trained pilots - later in the war, Germany didn't have the fuel or resources to fully train combat pilots, to replace those lost.

The US cycled the best pilots back home to train new pilots, while Germany had their top aces in combat until they were killed. It's not cheap if it gets shot down quickly due to inexperienced pilots going up against pros.

Plus, the BF109's narrow landing gear led to a high number of takeoff and landing accidents. It's not cheap if it crashes for non combat reasons.

The cost to produce a P47 was $84k. For the purpose that it ended up being used for - ground attack - it was far better than the BF109, due to its ability to absorb ground fire, and its heavy armament and bomb load. CAS began with Stukas, but was refined to a high level of effectiveness using the P47... the much dreaded 'Jabo'.

Both the P47 and P51 were also designed with maintenance in mind, whereas the BF109 and Spitfire had much higher maintenance requirements.

For a contemporary example (from a USMC maintenance officer), the time to change an engine on an F18 is around four hours. For a Harrier, it's 300 hours - they have to pull the plane apart, while the F18's engines just slide out the back.

In the end, cost wasn't really a factor. Germany built more BF109's in 1944 than any other year. What they lacked was trained pilots and fuel to fly them.

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I think you should take into account some elements that you have already found, to answer. Why are we talking about "man-hour" for producing an aircraft?

The main reason is that during WW2, building aircraft was the result of two processes:

  • Building the structure ofthe aircraft
  • Motorizing the aircraft

The first process was mainly an issue of man-hour, having (good) people ready to work hard in order to produce a lot. Some automated-tools could help already in 1940s' industry, but they were better used in steel-based mnaufacturing (tanks for example) than wood-based such as aircraft.

The second process was more difficult, and it was truly something that made differences betweeen the capabilities of fighting countries to produce more or less airplanes.

So, to answer the question "what were the costs of various military tools?", I won't give you an exhaustive list for all aircrafts, but I will give you guidelines:

  • Man hour numbers are accurate for aircraft production
  • The cost in motorization should be taken into account and could explain "gaps" between German and British production
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    This does not answer the question, but describes how to do it. Not helpful.
    – sds
    Feb 2 at 20:43
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    Not many primarily-wood aircraft in WWII. Some, sure, but particularly fighters were all metal.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 2 at 21:18
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    @JonCuster except for the Hurricane... Feb 3 at 10:32
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    A book about the Mosquito plane stated that wooden planes had the advantage of leveraging smaller tool shops that would not be useful to the war effort otherwise (besides not using scarce metals). The author described a network of smaller carpenter shops producing wooden parts supplying the main Mosquito factories.
    – Luiz
    Feb 3 at 17:21
  • @Luiz Yeah this was one of the reason the Mosquito could be produced alongside other planes Feb 3 at 18:13

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