Legacy Fighters as “gap fillers”
Tom Gunn, a Boeing Corp. adviser explains why putting all our future aerial eggs in a single untried basket with the F-35 JSF is a mistake, and offers alternatives:
The F-35 probably will be an important asset some day. However, the Department of Defense is proposing to buy 241 F-35 fighters, at perhaps $150 million a copy, before the first fully integrated, mission-capable aircraft even begins flight testing. That decision makes some troubling assumptions. The F-18s would cost about $50 million a copy…
The St. Louis-produced F/A-18 and F-15 Strike Eagle are the perfect gap fillers, meeting requirements until the F-35 has fully been proven. The latest variant of the F-15, a stealth version dubbed the “Silent Eagle” and unveiled last month, is designed specifically as a near-term alternative to the F-35. And the Boeing F/A-18 radar is the type selected for use in the F-35. The capabilities of the latest model Super Hornet, which joined the fleet only eight years ago, are state of the art. Why not fill current needs with proven state-of-the-art fighters at about half the probable unit price of the unproven F-35? Use the savings to support the ongoing and rising development costs. And by keeping the Boeing fighter aircraft business in St. Louis open, we would acknowledge the truth of the eggs-and-basket wisdom.
Perhaps its time to acknowledged that airframes have probably reached the end of their development. The late-Cold War military aircraft such as the F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, A-10s, AV-8s, and so on are the end of the line and the climax of an era. Proof of this can be seen in that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, most are still on the frontlines, and replacing them seems as far away as ever.
The so called “next leap” in airpower, stealth aircraft has become a roadblock in that few nations ( with one so armed and counting) can afford such high tech wonders, and even that power has so far purchased them in handfuls, with development and procurement lasting for decades, and little to show for it. Stealth seems of little use in wartime save for silver bullet strikes, and in the Kosovo campaign we found our legacy aircraft could operate against heavily defended airspace just by flying above it, sending in JDAMs and other smart weapons into harm’s way.
The key to future airpower is not in airframes (except for having enough of them), but in weapons, electronics and sensors. So, if we add these advancements in technology to the very adequate and affordable frames already in production, we get an advanced superfighter at an affordable price. Or we can just keep developing exotic and ever fewer superjets to face modern threats, and eventually end up with the one military plane shared by all the services, which Augustine warned us about!