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.