Warplanes: February 24, 2004

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The U.S. Air Force has already built 25 of its new F-22 fighters (for testing and training), and 19 are to be manufactured this year. The air force wants to eventually buy 276, at a cost of over $250 million each. The F-22 is the pinnacle of 20th century warplane design and technology. Unfortunately, it's now the 21st century and new aerial threats are appearing that may make the F-22 obsolete before it even enters service at the end of the decade. 

One thing that has always threatened the F-22 has been cost. Development costs kept growing beyond constantly increased budgets, to the point where the development bill was nearly $30 billion. The large cost of the F-22 was always a threat to the project. Originally conceived in the 1980s as the successor to the F-15, and the primary weapon to keep the Soviet air force from controlling the skies, the F-22 prototypes first flew just as the Cold War ended. At that point, the air force planned to buy 648 aircraft. That number has come down steadily as development costs escalated, and no credible threat to American air supremacy appeared to replace the Soviet Air Force. 

What's sneaking up on the F-22 now are combat UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles.) These UCAVs are being built and tested by the air force and navy. The technology is mature and widely available. The rest of the world is waiting to see what the United States comes up with, knowing that this is the future and it will be software, more than anything else, that will make a superior UCAV. At the moment, the U.S. appears headed for dominance in the UCAV department. But if other nations start building UCAVs, the current American fleet of manned warplanes will be threatened. UCAVs are cheaper than manned aircraft, and can be used more aggressively. You don't have to worry about losing pilots. Not just because you don't like to see your pilots get killed, but also because of the time and cost required to produce effective combat pilots. UCAVs are cheaper to build, use and lose.

Another threat to F-22s are advances in radar technology that are making the stealthiness of these aircraft less effective. A lot of this has to do with improvements in computer and software technology, but the end result is more vulnerability for a few very expensive aircraft. Many UCAVs will be bombers, and the air force sees it's new F-35 threatened as well. UCAVs being developed are stealthy, and can take risks you would avoid when using manned aircraft. 

If the air force decides it needs a lot of UCAVs in a hurry, Congress will probably not put up with buying expensive F-22s and F-35s (which only cost about $40 million each) as well. So the air force is looking into the possibility of cutting or canceling F-22 and F-35 production, and upgrading current aircraft (F-15s, F-16s and A-10s) to hold the fort until the UCAVs are available in quantity. The huge development costs for the F-22 and F-35 won't be wasted. Those technologies can be applied to UCAVs, which can be built cheaper (at least 20 percent cheaper) because these aircraft don't have to carry a pilot. That means F-22 class UCAVs could be built for under $100-150 million each. The F-22 UCAV would also be a more capable aircraft, being able to perform maneuvers a human pilot could not survive. 

The army is facing many of the same problems with it's Comanche reconnaissance helicopter. The army cancelled the Comanche program this week, losing $10 billion in the process ($8 billion already spent on development, plus $2 billion in cancellation fees to the manufacturers.) The Comanche cancellation, and the air force contingency plans, don't auger well for the F-22.

 


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