Warplanes: August 1, 2005

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The U.S. Air Force warplane fleet has been shrinking for sixty years. At the end of World War II, the air force had 63,000 fighters (plus nearly as many bombers of various sizes). Currently, the fighter force stands at about 3,400, and is headed for 2,000 in the next decade. There are only a few hundred bombers (most of them A-10s.) This trend has been noted over the years, with one wag predicting that, sometime early in the 21st century, the U.S. Air Force would possess but one, very expensive, and very capable, fighter aircraft. The new F-22, for example, costing over $200 million each, has put a real squeeze on how many fighters the air force can afford, and makes the "one warplane air force" joke seem all too real.

The dramatic reduction in the number of fighters has been made possible by the greater capabilities of the newer, and more expensive, aircraft. This has made it necessary to provide more training (as in more time in the air) for the pilots of these more expensive aircraft. But thats where the U.S. Air Force has an enormous advantage. While potential foes of the U.S. strain to buy modern aircraft, they find they cannot afford to let their pilots fly them. This makes their fighters expensive targets, in wartime, if they have to go up against American fighters. This is the dilemma facing China. The Chinese have lots of proven, even inexpensive, fighters. And plenty of eager pilots. But they cannot afford to let these guys spend enough time in the air to become really good, or even effective. Not when oil is costing over $50 a barrel. Its costing China big bucks just to let the pilots of its few hundred most modern (Su-27 class) fighters fly. The situation in Iran and North Korea is even worse, because Iran has no modern fighters, although they do produce their own oil. But a two decade long arms embargo prevents Iran from getting spare parts for its largely American made fighter fleet. North Korea has a few modern fighters, but no money to buy fuel for its poorly trained pilots.

While the problems of potential foes gives U.S. Air Force generals some relief, the big problem, of growing aircraft cost, remains. The generals are wondering how they will maintain their reputation with fewer aircraft. The American fighter force has been so formidable, for example, that U.S. troops on the ground have not been attacked from the air in over half a century. New smart bomb developments have made it possible for anything that can fly to develop highly accurate attacks from the air. A few dozen, four decade old, B-52s are sufficient to carry all the smart bombs needed for most operations. 

But its not just the bombs that have gotten a lot smarter. Several decades of developing software to run aircraft has made it possible to send off a fully robotic bomber, or even fighter, on many types of missions. Air forces have resisted this sort of thing for over thirty years, although cruise missiles, which are one way bombers, are regularly used. But now, all those nations that see no way of competing with the F-22, do see it as possible to build a large fleet of robotic fighter aircraft. China has a lot more software engineers than it does highly experienced fighter pilots. American air force generals fear that the Chinese are moving slowly to expand their fleet of modern fighters because everyone believes that the next generation of fighters will be robotic, and a lot cheaper than F-22s. 

This is one of those rare turning points in weapons design. Similar to when the modern battleship (the British Dreadnaught being the first), made all existing battleships obsolete. A similar thing happened when jet fighters appeared in the mid 1940s. Nearly all those 63,000 American fighter aircraft in 1945 were prop-driven, and all those pilots knew that in the next few years, jet fighters would make all those prop fighters obsolete. Now the robotic fighters are about to make manned fighters obsolete, just like GPS guided bombs (JDAM) made dumb bombs dropped by a low flying fighter-bomber obsolete. 

 


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