The F-35 Lightning II is the most expensive military program in the history of the United States, and could cost $1.5 trillion over the course of its lifetime. Its specialized fighter helmet costs upwards of $400,000 and requires two days of special fittings for pilots.
Made of a bubble of carbon fiber, which is meant to help reduce weight while its checkerboard pattern provides rigidity, the helmet is also reinforced with Kevlar. In addition to the space age materials, it is essentially loaded with displays to provide pilots with the information needed to complete their missions – including airspeed, heading, altitude, targeting information and warnings. All of this is projected on the pilot’s visor rather than via a traditional heads-up display, which reduces the pilot’s workload whilst increasing responsiveness.
It further helps create a type of convergence of man and machine that allows the pilot to better access the aircraft’s Distributed Aperture System (DAS), which streams real-time imagery from six infrared cameras mounted around the aircraft to the helmet.
“The helmet is much more than a helmet, the helmet is a workspace,” then Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III explained at a 2015 press briefing. “It’s an interpretation of the battle space. It’s situational awareness. Calling this thing a helmet is really…we’ve got to come up with a new word.”
F-35 Helmet requires Specialty Fitting
Each F-35 helmet is also custom-fitted to the wearer to ensure a perfect fit even under intense G forces. This process is more complicated than being fitted for an expensive suit; and it involves taking a 3D scan of the pilot’s head, which enables precise cutting of a foam liner by laser.
Each pilot has his/her eyes measured by a special ‘pupilometer’ to align the optic package to just 2mm off the center of the pupil, which aids in ensuring that images are in the field of vision to reduce eye strain and fatigue.
Weight gain or a different haircut can affect the fit and thus effectiveness of the flight helmet, so pilots may need to maintain weight and hair style.
Comparing the Costs of the F-35 Helmet
The $400,000 price tag of the helmet has been a matter of discussion – but some context needs to be considered. As noted, the helmet’s DAS and other displays are in the helmet. This replaces other displays in the cockpit, so in essence the cost is just shifted.
With a price that exceeds a Ferrari – or two – there is no denying as well that this is the most expensive military helmet likely ever produced. It can certainly do things a Ferrari can’t do. More importantly, few military helmets could be seen as “cheap” when compared to their civilian counterparts.
As an example, the helmets used in the Air Force’s F-15 and F-16 fighters were designed for use in a high-G combat environment, and were essentially just fiberglass shells that could be fitted with earphones, communications cord and oxygen mask receivers. Even today these don’t come cheap
“The HGU-55, the standard type military fixed wing used, costs $1,200 to $1,300 depending on basic visor options. That’s for the shell only with no higher tech visor system,” said Bill Holland, a collector and researcher of modern U.S. combat helmets.
“For the 02 mask alone that added between $1,600 to $1,700,” Holland told ClearanceJobs.
As the flight helmets have seen more integration with the aircraft’s systems including heads-up displays – such as the Raytheon-developed Helmet Mounted Integrated Targeting – the prices of the helmets has increased significantly.
“A new higher tech helmet is being made for the F-16 V Model with a new high tech visor kind of like the F-35 type,” said Holland, who was unable to put an exact price on the helmet.
All Military Helmets Cost More
However, it isn’t just pilots that are wearing more expensive helmets these days. All of America’s warfighters’ “brain buckets” have increased considerably.
“Since the turn of the 20th century, the cost of equipping a single soldier has increased at a rocket’s pace,” explained John Adams-Graf, editor of Military Vehicles magazine.
“In 1917, it cost roughly $156 to equip a U.S. soldier to fight in France. Of that, only about 2% went pay for the steel helmet, roughly $3.00,” Adams-Graf told ClearanceJobs. “By 1941, the cost of equipping a soldier hadn’t climbed significantly — only about $170 with each helmet costing about $11 each. During the Vietnam War, though, the cost to equip an American soldier had gone up to $1,750. The helmet was still a relative bargain at around $20 per soldier.”
Those steel helmets, which had a removable liner system, were still more expensive than the heavy plastic “hardhats” used in construction, but really not all that much more than what a football helmet of the era might have cost at the time. Those helmets were replaced in the 1980s with a modern Kelvar helmet that provided vastly superior ballistic protection, but the costs increased nearly six fold – and the price has only continued to go up.
According to a research paper from the Naval Post Graduate School by Robert F. Mortlock, entitled “Protecting American Soldiers: The Development, Testing and Fielding of the Enhanced Combat Helmet,” the cost of modern military helmets has continued to steadily increase as the ballistic capabilities and other features of the helmets have been enhanced and improved.
“From 1999 to 2016, the cost of head protection for soldiers jumped from about $150 for the Personal Armor System for Ground Troops helmet (PASGT) in 1999 to $280 for the Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH) in 2008,” said Adams-Graf. “By mid-2012, though, the U.S. was paying as high as $1,400 for the ACH. The Enhanced Combat Helmet (ECH) also adopted in 2008 cost roughly $840. By 2017, though, helmet cost was projected to plateau over $1,600 each.”
Specialty Helmets Cost More
The helmets used by today’s Special Forces warfighters, including the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEALs, can be even more expensive than what the average foot soldier has on his or her head.
“The Ops-Core site has the standard FAST XP – worn by SOCOM (United States Special Operations Command) since 2010 – is currently listed publicly at $1,506.75,” said Holland.
“The Ops-Core FAST SF Super High Cut, the new version just entering service, is currently listed publicly at $1,860.60,” Holland told ClearanceJobs. “Keep in mind, the helmet is no longer a simple protection for the head, though. It has become a platform for an array of night vision and/or distance fighting gear with the costs reaching into thousands of dollars for each soldier.”