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The end of manned fighter jets?

This article at the Economist (Paul Marks, please switch channels now! Ed) is getting a lot of attention. It argues that the F-35 fighter of the US is likely to be the last manned fighter to be developed, even though manned fighter jets will probably remain in use for a quite a long while yet. The future is about drones, due to reasons of cost, rising sophistication and efficiency.

Here are some paragraphs:

“What horrified the senators most was not the cost of buying F-35s but the cost of operating and supporting them: $1 trillion over the plane’s lifetime. Mr McCain described that estimate as “jaw-dropping”. The Pentagon guesses that it will cost a third more to run the F-35 than the aircraft it is replacing. Ashton Carter, the defence-acquisition chief, calls this “unacceptable and unaffordable”, and vows to trim it. A sceptical Mr McCain says he wants the Pentagon to examine alternatives to the F-35, should Mr Carter not succeed.”

“How worried should Lockheed Martin be? The F-35 is the biggest biscuit in its barrel, by far. And it is not only Mr McCain who is seeking to knock a few chocolate chips out of it. The bipartisan fiscal responsibility and reform commission appointed by Mr Obama last year said that not all military aircraft need to be stealthy. It suggested cancelling the STOVL version of the F-35 and cutting the rest of its order by half, while buying cheaper F-16s and F-18s to keep numbers up. If America decided it could live with such a “high-low” mix, foreign customers might follow suit.”

“The danger for Lockheed Martin is that if orders start to tumble, the F-35 could go into a death spiral. The fewer planes governments order, the more each one will cost and the less attractive the F-35 will be. This happened to the even more sophisticated and expensive F-22. By cutting its order from 750 to 183, the Pentagon helped to drive the programme cost per aircraft of the F-22 up from $149m to $342m.”

Oh well, it appears that all those young men and even women hoping to be the next Chuck Yeager will be disappointed. The era of the “fighter ace” may be drawing to an end. Somehow, telling a girl in a bar that you fly a drone remotely from a shed in Nevada does not sound quite so cool as saying that you fly Lightnings or F-16s. But then again, as our own Dale Amon might point out, if you want serious aviation action and adventure, then commercial space flight is where the fun is.

As I have referenced before, this book by PW Singer is essential reading for how technological developments in the current age are shaping military spending and warfare. From a libertarian point of view, it might be nice to hope that this would lead to a dramatic reduction in costs. The figures produced in the Economist’s report are, indeed, shocking.

20 comments to The end of manned fighter jets?

  • James Waterton

    This is why I’m not especially worried about the Chinese and Russians showing off their latest fighter jets, and bragging about what they’ve got in the pipeline, as these projects stand a good chance of being obsolete by the time they make it off the blueprint and into production – if they even exist at all. Go for it! Pour all your expertise and resources into designing a plane that can mix it with the Raptor.

    Speaking of dictatorial regimes and their megalomaniacal ambitions, look at the Chinese high-speed rail network. I’m no transport expert, but I’d happily wager that pouring many hundreds of billions of dollars into high speed rail will not look like a very good investment at all in a few decades time, pace the Thomas Friedmans of this world. The future of high speed transport is in the air, not overland.

  • Mr Ecks

    Older aircraft–WW2 eg P51 Mustang etc were designed and produced relatively cheaply.

    Modern military aircraft cost hundreds or even thousands of times as much.

    Inflation accounts for some of that.

    However as sophisticated as modern aircraft are, are they hundreds or thousands of times as complex as yesterdays aircraft?.

    The cosy rip-off relationship between the state and its cost-plus contract military suppliers is more the cause of rising costs than anything else.

  • Sean

    Cost is not the problem – it’s the thinking of our leaders that is the problem. Even at the inflated by incompetence price of $350M a copy the F-22 represents great value for money. That is little more than the cost of an A380 – while technically it is night and day more advanced.

    But mostly it’s cheap because it ensures American air-supremacy – without which the US Army and US Navy look way less imposing. The F-22, and weapons like it, are exactly what is required to provide for the peace, and they do it at the lowest cost in both lives and treasure.

    I’m sure the F-35 will be the last manned ‘fighter’ produced in the west. But it would be best employed with next-gen drones rather than past-gen manned aircraft. Both operating in airspace secured by the F-22.

    The F-22 represents a “Dreadnought” like leap in capabilities and the US should be doing what the British did with their head start early last century – totally out build the competition.

    The F-22 line should be re-opened and the current inventory doubled. Additional orders from the Japanese, Australians, and Israelis would likely bring down the cost to around the $200M mark – at which point it represents absolutely superb value for money.

    Still, I may be wrong – the F-23 would have been my pick of the ATF’s in the early 1990s.

  • cirby

    I’m not so happy with the “let’s just use drones” idea.

    The problem is with control. Unless the drone is 100% autonomous, you have to have some guy sitting in a trailer somewhere, pushing buttons to make the thing fly. This creates two points of failure – the guy in the trailer (who could get blown up while flying the thing) and the command link between the trailer and the drone (which could get blown up or electronically jammed any time during the mission).

    So far, the US hasn’t really had to cope with either of those two issues in a combat setting. In a real war, it will be trivial to do things which will disrupt the whole command link. Sure, you can have fallbacks (like automatic return to base if command is lost, and alternate command and control systems that can take over control from other bases), but those are things a live pilot doesn’t really need on most missions.

    This is on top of the whole “what if your command codes are compromised” issue – what do you do if the Chinese can take over your drones in midflight, due to sneaking some extra software into one or more of your control systems? Not only do you lose the use of your entire air force, you run the risk of having it used against you…

    Hell, if the other side figures out your transmission protocols (like your frequency-hopping patterns), they could take out an entire flight of drones with one cheap drone of their own, sending out enough radio frequency jamming at the right frequencies.

  • Cirby, human pilots are dependent on lines of communication with their bases (and with each other) as it is. Drones can be made partially autonomous, which would make the level of their dependency on that line more similar to that of human pilots. Not perfectly similar, of course – but then the loss of a drone cannot be compared to a loss of a fighter jet with a human pilot in it.

    As to possible malicious blue on blue, my hunch is that it would be much more difficult to accomplish than to prevent it from happening in most cases (I could well be wrong, and no technology is fool-proof – but human body and brain is even less so). What is clear is that when there are no human pilots involved in an entire fleet, with maybe a couple of guys in a trailer, the balance sheet does look radically different.

    All that said, I rather don’t think that manned fighter jets will be phased out entirely, if only because there will always be some crazies who will be anxious to do it. Their roles are likely to become much more specific though, and there will be much fewer of them.

    Anyway, all of this seems fairly academic right now, seeing as there will not be much money to be had in the foreseeable future for any of this stuff, manned or otherwise.

  • Dale Amon

    This happens every decade or so. A new weapon comes along and suddenly the fighter is obsolete. Duncan Sandys declared the missile had made the era of aircraft ended and proceeded to destroy the incredible UK aviation industry of the 50’s.

    Fighter mounted missiles were declared in the US to have made the gun obsolete. After F-4’s in Vietnam were shot down by guns, this idea died. Every true fighter since has had guns.

    Now I hear (even from blue friends) that UAV’s will obsolete the fighter. No, they won’t. Not until we have strong AI in the cockpit and trust that it will still do our bidding.

    Technology changes. Missions change. But fighters and tanks and other systems soldier on in their new roles, as elements of new combined arms structures in the battlespace.

  • Eric

    Air superiority is the key to modern warfare. Once you have it you don’t need nimble, high performance aircraft to drop bombs. You need a big bomb truck, like the elderly B-52.

    The only reason the F-35 ever made sense was the anticipation of sales to other countries that wouldn’t be getting the F-22.

  • Kristopher

    I doubt that UAV will replace fighters.

    A good strong jammer will knock a UAV out of the sky.

    UAVs only work against low tech wogs ( of whatever race/nationality ).

  • konshtok


    You sound like an old cavalry man explaining why these new fangled “tanks” would never replace the horse

  • Drones or TopGun, either way pound to a penny China will take down the birds in orbit, rendering comms and positioning FUBAR.

  • Eric

    Drones or TopGun, either way pound to a penny China will take down the birds in orbit, rendering comms and positioning FUBAR.

    Probably not. There are a few countries that have demonstrated the ability to take down satellites in a 200 mile orbit, but communication satellites are more than a hundred times higher up. I don’t think anyone has the capability to take out satellites in geostationary orbit without going nuclear.

    As far as GPS goes, the military has put a lot of thought into making sure things still work when it goes down. JDAMs have back-up inertial guidance – not quite as accurate, but it gets the job done. Cruise missiles have terrain contour matching systems. The trend is toward laser guidance for precision munitions anyway, since they’re a little more accurate than GPS (albeit more expensive) and you can use them against moving targets.

  • Mike James

    Wait until the first blue-on-blue incident involving a drone flown from Nellis AFB dropping ordnance on friendlies. I think manned Tacair is going to be around for a while.

  • Wait until the first blue-on-blue incident involving a drone flown from Nellis AFB dropping ordnance on friendlies.

    Why? Because manned aircraft don’t do blue-on-blues?

  • Eric: There are a few countries that have demonstrated the ability to take down satellites in a 200 mile orbit

    China has demonstrated satellite destruction and it is foolhardy to presume they do not intend to have US GPS in their sights.

    Geostationary comms satellites, I would suggest, are not practical for drone control, given the round trip latency.

  • Steven Rockwell

    However as sophisticated as modern aircraft are, are they hundreds or thousands of times as complex as yesterdays aircraft?.

    It isn’t just the design of the aircraft. Materials used are cutting edge and need researched and paid for. The computer systems need developed and built. The sheer mechanics for controlling the aircraft need developed from the ground up. We’re at the point now that they aircraft can kill the pilot during manuvers from G forces alone.

    Beyond that, there’s the ever-changing demands fromt he DoD. I read somewhere that the product specification proposals sent out to the contractors for the F-22 was something like three feet thick of 8 1/2×11 pages. That’s just what the DoD wanted at the time and specificed very specific needs/dimentions/requirements/etc. And then there are the late changes due to new technologies, battlefield mission changes, doctrine changes, funding changes, and so on. We’ve come a real long way from the time that the Army Air Corps simply put out a one page list of requirements for a new airplane and then selected the best one.

    Something else to consider is the survival of the company. There are very few companies in the US that can do the work of Lockheed Martin, McDonell Douglas, and Boeing. They might spend a billion dollars developing the contract just to lose it in the end. The free marketeer in me might say, “good, then go out of business,” but the realist in me says. “but there isn’t another company able to do what they do and we need airplanes for defense.” So the contracts get inflated so the company can survive losing the contract for F-X but will still be around to make F-Y a few years later.

    As far as the drones taking over, it will never happen. The Fighter Mafia is far too powerful in the Pentagon, too many members of Congress are ex-fighter jocks, and too many jobs will be lost. It is too much of an ingrained culture in the services to just accept obsolecense.

  • Eric

    China has demonstrated satellite destruction and it is foolhardy to presume they do not intend to have US GPS in their sights.

    GPS satellites are up around 12,000 miles. I would be very surprised if the Chinese have a weapon that can strike something in that orbit. Of course it’s doable from a technical perspective – I just don’t think they’ve made the investment.

    Geostationary comms satellites, I would suggest, are not practical for drone control, given the round trip latency.

    It depends on what you’re trying to do. I agree they’re not practical if you want to start dog fighting. But if you’re giving orders like “go to these coordinates” and “attack this building/vehicle” a quarter second round trip isn’t going to matter much.

    Another consideration is over the last few years the USAF has been putting communications links into just about everything that flies, so as long as you have an aerostat, spy plane, tanker, or AWACS in the area you can control your drones even without satellites. Though of course that means the control is coming from someone in theater.

  • David Koehler-Stanescu

    I think that drones are an absolutely wonderful idea, but that will (at least for the immediate future) have few operational roles, mostly used for bombing and cargo or refueling. I also believe that the fighter jet should remain in the hands of human aviators for a good while yet, for the simple reasons that someone who knows that his life is on the line is much more reliable than someone who can only think that he’s costing an impersonal government millions of dollars if he fails his mission, the fact that it’s a whole lot harder to subvert numerous patriotic men and women than it is to insert a few extra lines of code somewhere, and the fact that so far there is no technology capable of mimicking human fast paced reflexes, or especially operational experience.

    GPS satellites are up around 12,000 miles.I would be very surprised if the Chinese have a weapon that can strike in that something in that orbit

    The Chinese have already committed tests striking an aging weather satellite at an orbit of 500+ miles, and that was in 2007. If their range capacity has not expanded since, then China would not be a very warlike nation bent on destroying those evil Americans right after we pay back the trillion dollars we owe them.

  • Kristopher

    konshtok: UAVs can be jammed by an enemy with tech capability similar to your’s.

    As an air superiority platform, this is a bad thing.

    Human pilots can’t be jammed.

    UAVs are useful against low tech opponents only.

  • Antoine Clarke

    What happens when the enemy pwns your OS. And why UAVs would be worse.




  • chris

    I’m doing a report on how likely it is that UAV’s will ever replace manned aircraft for my university course. If you have any sources which either back up this statement or not I would appreciate it! Books, URL’s, Atricles, news stories etc.