Skip to content

The Impending Collapse of Manned Airpower

November 3, 2009

If you thought the recent knife fights over the F-22 Raptor fighter cancellation was tough, you haven’t seen anything comparable as the massive Joint Strike Fighter program implodes under the weight of immense costs in the next decade. At least, that is yours truly’s prediction, as all the signs of disaster on a colossal scale, dare I say Biblical proportions, of this likely the most costly and important international weapons venture in all history. Listen to Winslow Wheeler’s take:

A financial disaster? How can that be? Visiting the F-35 plant in Fort Worth, Texas last August, Secretary of D Robert Gates assured us that the F-35 will be “less than half the price … of the F-22.” In a narrow sense, Gates is right. At a breathtaking $65 billion for 187 aircraft, the F-22 consumes $350 million for each plane. At $299 billion for 2,456, the F-35 would seem a bargain at just $122 million each.

F-35 unit cost will ultimately be much higher…the F-35 program will cost up to $15 billion more, and it will be delivered about two years late.

 I am not particular surprised at what is going on with the F-35, since it is yet another sign of such last century weapons approaching obsolescence, as we reported on the demise of the Main Battle Tank yesterday. Other glaring evidence was the UK reducing its purchase of new planes to only 50, because of high costs. He also details how mediocre the plane is compared to the one it is replacing, with its single benefit seeming to be stealth, though the old weapons just use stand-off weapons as a much cheaper and very effective alternative (as in Operation Allied Force). Foreign air forces hardly even bother with stealth and they have been doing just fine. What is amazing, instead of bringing about a major revolution in aerial design, stealth seems to have added the last few nails in manned airpower’s coffin!

I think if the USA gets 500 planes out of this Epic Boondoggle, we will be lucky, with their placed taken by increasingly capable unmanned aerial vehicles, and legacy fighters built off the shelf. Wheeler goes on to say the latest model F-16 costs only $60 million, while Boeing says it can build the Super Hornet for $50 million each and I believe them. I predict a rush order of the latter to stave off the mass retirement of older planes bought in the 70s and 80s.


Strategypage goes on to detail how the graphic changes ongoing in airpower is affecting the USAF and pilot morale:

The U.S. Air Force has a morale problem with its combat pilots. The issue is lack of action for the pilots. That, plus the increased use of unmanned aircraft, and the very real prospect that the age of the manned combat aircraft may be coming to an end. This is made worse with hundreds of  fighter pilots being assigned to operating Predator and Reaper UAVs. This was not popular duty, even though the pilots still draw flight pay. It is tedious work, although the UAV operators often saw more combat action than they did when piloting F-16s or F-15s.

Specifically concerning the F-35:

Many people, including some generals in the air force, believe that its next generation fighter will not have a pilot on board. Many air force generals admit that the F-35 is probably the last manned fighter. But some believe that the F-35 will be facing stiff competition from pilot less fighters before F-35 production is scheduled to end in 2034.

 UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) are not particularly popular with many U.S. Air Force leaders, but that is not the case in many other countries. Air force generals around the world see the unpiloted jet fighter as a way to break the monopoly the U.S. Air Force has had on air supremacy for the last sixty years.

You might see then why the pilots are depressed. That last statement is a certain one. Rome dominated by landpower. Great Britain by seapower. America leads with airpower, with each of its armed forces structured accordingly around some type of air platform (as we often detail the USN’s extreme reluctance to admit their capita ship, the aircraft carrier is in decline). I don’t see the end of manned air destroying the US ability to wage war, but clinging to obsolete concepts for nostalgia’s sake is a certain path to destruction.


Finally, while manned aircraft orders are shrinking, the builders of UAVs can’t keep up with demand. Also from Strategypage concerning the Israeli Heron:

 Germany is joining a growing list of NATO nations that are obtaining Israeli Heron UAVs for their troops in Afghanistan. A German firm is partnering with the Israeli manufacturer to provide maintenance services. The German Herons will become operational in Afghanistan in about four months…

Australian troops in Afghanistan begun using Israeli Heron UAVs two months ago. Last July, Australian troops went to Canada to receive training on the Heron, which Canadian troops have also adopted…Last year, Canada also ordered half a dozen of the larger Israeli Heron TP UAVs…

Heron is actually getting a lot of sales because the Predator manufacturer cannot keep up with American military and CIA orders.

So we see with these newer robot aircraft, a small military can quickly build its airpower resources, while a larger nation can enhance it’s own quickly, economically, and effectively. When you consider the less than 200 traditional jets have joined the USAF inventory the past decade, while literally thousands of UAVs have been deployed and seen combat during the same time period, can there be any doubt where the future lies?


31 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 6, 2009 9:51 am

    Robin thanks for your interest! You have my permission to reproduce the article mentioned, with a link back to New Wars. Be glad to post your page in our links section. Thanks again.

    Mike Burleson

  2. November 6, 2009 8:42 am

    Muike : here at U K Defence Forum we already flag your posts on our DEFENCEnet Daily email alert, and have a link to you on our Defence Viewpoints blog.

    One of our readers has pointed out your piece on the death of manned flight and we’d like to republish it (with attribution) Do you have any problem with this?

    Would appreciate a reciprocal mention for Defence Viewpoints on your site if that’s possible….

    Best wishes
    (P.S. We Brits haven’t yet been told officially that we’re going down to 50 JSFs. Our Eurofighter Typhoon – 232 on order – fitted with thrust swivel nozzles under development has sufficient power to weight ratio to take off from the deck of the new class of carriers we’ve just started to build. It already has a vestigial tail hook, and the ships have what was called a “versatile design” which would allow arrestor wires to be fitted. Rather cheaper than a JSF offtake with all the TLS adavtages of one less class of planes…)

  3. November 5, 2009 7:29 pm

    You and APA are the only ones still pushing that line Eric. If you can’t show me proof then the word from Team JSF and LM are valid when they say that stealth is all the same on all the models….

  4. November 5, 2009 3:45 pm

    “Now with the advent of stealth, we finally have a reason for a new airframe.”

    There is stealth and there is export friendly stealth, “affordable” stealth, and stealth without high end super-cruise and extreme altitude backed up by lots of spin.

  5. Joe permalink
    November 5, 2009 11:34 am

    As much as we hear about stealth, what is the latest defense-group buzz on whether our top-tier enemies have developed any defenses against it? Are there old-school or either cutting-edge radar systems that it’s rumored are making stealth more easily seen?

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 5, 2009 6:33 am

    Solomon said “Now with the advent of stealth, we finally have a reason for a new airframe.”

    Completely true, I just question the need, and whether it was worth it. Sometimes you have to let things die gracefully and it was an attempt to make manned airpower more relevant in the Missile Age. If you follow the numbers, you can see it failed terribly. Despite the headlines of precision missiles flying down smokestacks, we are still using non-stealthy legacy fighters to fight our wars. Non-stealthy planes are not obsolete and more relevant than ever since no other nation has stealth yet. Now they are joined by new unmanned aerial vehicles, some of which will be stealthy but at a more affordable price.

  7. Tarl permalink
    November 4, 2009 11:40 pm

    You don’t need *stealth* planes for the Air Sovreignity mission over the US

    A month or so ago I heard Rebecca Grant argue we needed the F-22 for the continental air defense mission. My reaction: “Mmmmm nice try but no sale.”

    Stealth is good for “getting in” (to trouble) on a first day of the war scenario … but after that, it’s really not all that useful.

    That’s only true if you’re fighting a dumb enemy like Iraq 1991. A smart enemy will have mobile SAM launchers and won’t constantly radiate so you can come kill him. You will need stealth against such an opponent for a lot longer than “one day”.

  8. November 4, 2009 10:43 pm

    Mike the reason why the F-22 and F-35 are the only new fighter programs for the US in the last 20 odd years is because of a strange trend that has never occurred before in aviation history. Airframes are basically maxed out. Advances in fighter combat happen with the electronics …because of that you can update these so called 4th generation airplanes when in the past you’d have to design a whole new plane. Imagine a WW2 P-51 serving in frontline service until the Vietnam war…that’s whats basically happening now. Its the electronics! Now with the advent of stealth, we finally have a reason for a new airframe. Come back to the light Mike, don’t be lured to the dark side.

  9. November 4, 2009 8:16 pm

    The Donner party was on-track. They just were not on schedule.

  10. NTV permalink
    November 4, 2009 4:13 pm

    Again, ANG aircraft do in fact fly over enemy territory as part of Aerospace Expeditionary Forces.

    Yes, you can level the claim against the F-35, but in doing so you would have to ignore that the F-35 will be part of the USAF, baring vary major problems. The same can not be said about the Gripen.

    I am not against buying new build 4th gen fighters, but we need to be realistic about how they are going to be used.

  11. Heretic permalink
    November 4, 2009 3:45 pm

    Again … stealth is only relevant when flying over enemy territory, not when flying over friendly territory. When no one is shooting at you, an existing 4.5 gen aircraft “does the job” just as well as a gold-plated stealth fighter.

    As for the “I don’t think introducing a new aircraft that the USAF/USAFR/ANG has NO experience flying, training, testing and or maintaining” is a charge that can just as easily be levelled against the F-35A/B … and one which will be concurrently true for several years yet.

  12. NTV permalink
    November 4, 2009 2:11 pm

    Dont those ANG airplanes also form up parts of AEF’s? If so then they will be tasked to go overseas. And then stealth becomes important. Maybe they are still to expensive, but lets be real about how they are used.
    Also, If you are going to buy an existing 4.5 gen aircraft, wouldnt it make sense to buy an aircraft that the ANG already has, knows how to maintain, and has trained crews? I dont think introducing a new aircraft that the USAF/USAFR/ANG has NO experince flying, training,testing and or maintainig will really save the USAF from itsself.

  13. Heretic permalink
    November 4, 2009 11:42 am

    There are 20 ANG bases around the country tasked with Air Sovreignity. Ideally … *ideally* … there’d be 3 squadrons of 24 planes each based out of each of those ANG bases. That’s 20 * 72 = 1440 planes for the ANG to take care of peacetime Air Sovreignity, with enough left over for expeditionary assignments.

    You don’t need *stealth* planes for the Air Sovreignity mission over the US … unless you’re planning to get shot down by friendly IADS. Stealth is only relevant over enemy territory, not over friendly. You’d only “need” the Stealth on planes forward deployed to AEWs overseas … right?

    So the USAF could save 1440 * $50 million = $72 BILLION dollars … easy … by buying Gripen NG to equip the ANG for the Air Sovreignity mission … and save the USAF from itself.

    They won’t do that of course …

  14. Joe permalink
    November 4, 2009 10:47 am

    Jed: How about supplementing the “first day of the war – air dominance” fleet with a 1000 Gripen’s?

    They’d probably not allow their egos (speaking of the AF/Pentagon) to consider that alternative. But it’s not a bad overall plan…pick a low-cost platform and max it out. Given what they would consider if they could drop their egos for a second, a stop-gap buy mix of F-18 SH’s and F-16’s wouldn’t be a bad idea. F-15’s as well, but you can only dream so much.

    After all, there is only so much Geritol and Centrum Silver that can be injected into these old airframes before one last high-g turn will be all she wrote.

    Good to see Mike drawing a sword on this defenseless boondoggle.

  15. Jed permalink
    November 4, 2009 9:27 am

    I have one “business phrase” for you – COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS !

    Does the USAF want loads of F35’s – of course. Can they afford them – different question.

    The Air National Guard is facing a fighter crisis, the Navy says it is facing a strike aircraft crisis and the old high-low mix of F16A / F51A has been replaced by the high-higher mix of F35 / F22.

    How about supplementing the “first day of the war – air dominance” fleet with a 1000 Gripen’s ? Or the jet version of the Stavatti Machette ?

    Whether UCAV’s are ready to replaced manned aircraft is a different discussion, and it depends on the mission. A Reaper for armed ISR does not mean an unmanned air-to-air fighter is just round the corner.

  16. Matthew S permalink
    November 4, 2009 1:51 am

    Put me down for about 900 F-35s for the USAF. Its ridiculous because the USAF gave up more F-22’s for the F-35 and yet there will probably be huge cuts coming down on the F-35 in a few years. Predator and Reapers have been replacing A-10 and F-16 units straight up even though their capability is not up to par yet.

  17. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 4, 2009 1:33 am

    Joe K-the key phrase is one you mentioned “one new fighter jet”.

    Why only one new fighter program started by the USAF since the 1990’s (the F-22 being from the 80s)where previously you might have half a dozen ongoing. The Navy had only one fighter in the same time period. Meanwhile at least a dozen, maybe more different UAVs designs have been built, deployed, and seen combat.

    It is a different age for airpower, and the numbers are against the superfighters.

  18. Joe K. permalink
    November 4, 2009 12:16 am

    You took the outlook of one new fighter jet and derive an idea that manned airpower is being supplanted by UAVs?

    That’s rich…and also ignorant.

    Thought you’d be more intelligent than that.

  19. Heretic permalink
    November 4, 2009 12:06 am

    The real distinction here is not one of Who Has Stealth vs Who Doesn’t … it’s a matter of Who Has EW vs Who Doesn’t.

    Stealth is good for “getting in” (to trouble) on a first day of the war scenario … but after that, it’s really not all that useful. Stealth is a “quick strike” favorite, especially if you’re talking single sortie … but it’s not something that’s going to be all that great when dealing with a grinding campaign of a shooting war. What you want for a shooting war campaign is EW capability, not Stealth. Stealth is “great” the first day, and then deadweight on your aircraft after the SEAD/DEAD mission(s) have bee completed and air dominance has been achieved. Conversely, you are essentially NEVER going to run out of jobs for an EW platform.

    Stealth is good for the first day of the war.
    EW is a workhorse every single day of the war (including the first one!).

    So naturally the USAF, institutionally biased towards the “quick win” of decisive engagements, wants to make every plane a Stealth plane … and loathes the nature and concept of the EW plane protecting friendly assets day in and day out over the long haul of a campaign.

  20. Tarl permalink
    November 3, 2009 8:43 pm

    I am not particular surprised at what is going on with the F-35, since it is yet another sign of such last century weapons approaching obsolescence,

    If you scrapped the F-35 and built a brand new plane, then that brand new, this-century non-obsolete weapon would also cost a ton of money – probably well over $100mill a pop. (Solomon is right.)

    He also details how mediocre the plane is compared to the one it is replacing

    For the RN, the JSF is replacing the Harrier. I am no JSF fan, but the JSF is inarguably much better than the Harrier, assuming you can afford it.

    though the old weapons just use stand-off weapons as a much cheaper and very effective alternative (as in Operation Allied Force).

    We didn’t need stealth against Serbia because the Serbians sucked. One shouldn’t draw any conclusion about stealth from that other than, “make sure you always fight enemies who suck and you won’t need stealth”. Give Serbia some SA-10s or SA-20s and Allied Force would be a whole different story.

    Foreign air forces hardly even bother with stealth and they have been doing just fine.

    Foreign air forces hardly even exist. The ones that are allied to us don’t “need” stealth because we have it and will suppress enemy IADS, and the ones that are against us don’t “need” stealth because they hardly dare to fly at all.

    A competent opponent would most certainly have stealth. We would most certainly need stealth to fight a competent opponent.

    Wheeler goes on to say the latest model F-16 costs only $60 million, while Boeing says it can build the Super Hornet for $50 million each and I believe them.

    Against SA-10s or SA-20s, they’re all dead.

    Better make sure we never fight anyone who has those…

  21. Distiller permalink
    November 3, 2009 7:12 pm

    I’m optimistic neither on the capabilities side, nor on the numbers side. There are so many assumptions on the capabilities side still that all is speculation, but I feel that there is not enough fighter in that strikefighter, and that a twin-seater would be much more useful than the vertical version. The timeplan is hopelessly optimistic, and will slip by at least 3, probably 5 years, playing havoc with the costs on all levels. And how many aircraft will actually be purchased – both domestically and internationally – is nowhere set in stone. Let’s just hope they keep the Super Hornet line open!

  22. November 3, 2009 6:23 pm

    not really, I’ll find the link but before you start seeing a destructive price increase the AF will have to fall below 1200 airframes. That a 500 airplane cushion. We know that the US Navy and Marines will take their full measure of aircraft (and the Navy maybe more depending on progress of the UCAV project) so that leaves our allies and how solid they are. Again. The Israeli buy is all extra. Turkey committed to additional airframes and my “F-35 alert” says that papers over there are indicating additional plus ups. The UK has always been shaky and we’re back to Singapore and Japan and S. Korea. Their is a bright side or as Kudlow say’s green shoots everywhere you look.

  23. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 3, 2009 6:18 pm

    JSF-Just-So-Farcical? Thats rich!

    Please don’t get me started on another “theme day”! LOL

  24. November 3, 2009 6:16 pm

    USAF in 2006 drove out their total delivery program of F-35 aircraft an additional 10 years to 2035-7. Reason? Cost rise. And who can say in 10 years let alone 5 what a sitting congress will approve.

    USAF is a major focal point for price because they are the biggest buyer of the jet. And look closer at their budget predictions of aircraft price in future years. Their year-before prediction for 2010 aircraft price compared to what they paid was off. Add to that, 2 less aircraft off-the-plan in 2010, (which they hope to make up in 2011). When you look deep into today’s USAF, you see many programs that are struggling for money. For many years now aircraft maintenance has been underfunded to the point of where it is now common practice.

    Big boss Schwartz has said that the USAF is looking at getting less than the 1763, but more than 1500. USAF still has to figure out how to fund their share of the F-35 plan when full rate production kicks in–whenever that is.

    Hopes and dreams are no replacement for the realities of today’s budget environment. And… the discussions for FY2011 will spin up soon.

    More drama–stay tuned.

  25. B.Smitty permalink
    November 3, 2009 6:08 pm


    The price point assumes a certain yearly rate. If the USAF (the primary buyer of the F-35, by far) can’t afford to buy at that rate, then the price goes up for everyone. How much it rises depends on the details. IIRC, dropping from 1700 to 1200 won’t do much to the price, but going from 1700 to 800 will have a big impact.

    I think it’s premature to expect the B model to generate a lot of sales. The Brits just cut there order from 138 to 50 due to escalating costs. There may just be a lot of ski ramp carriers out there with nothing but helicopters on them.

    And even if it does do “well”, B model total numbers will still pale in comparison to the USAF buy.

    Personally, I have always been for a combo of new F-22s, F-16E+s, F-18E/F+s for the USAF, USMC and USN. The F-15SG/K won’t be that much cheaper than a larger buy of Raptors. An F-16E+, OTOH, would be half the price of an F-15SG/K.

    Maybe that would free up enough money for the new bomber and UCAV programs.

  26. November 3, 2009 5:30 pm

    …but even when looking at Air Force budget numbers (thanks ELP) you can see that the F-35’s price plunges to around the mid 80 mil price point.

    should have said…plunges to the mid 80 mil price point once it enters full rate production…but even assuming a severe miscalculation then you can bet it won’t be much over 100 mil. That’s still a win.

  27. November 3, 2009 5:28 pm

    sorry B. Smitty. Everyone is looking at the production numbers and focusing on the USAF. I think that’s totally wrong. The B model will be the big winner over seas. Just look at the number of nations procuring LHD’s. The Japanese, S. Koreans…you can bet Singapore is going to come aboard, Thailand, S. Africa probably soon. Every nation that has global aspirations is trying to procure an LHD to project power. If they don’t have those aspirations then its to match a competitor. That means that the money maker will be the F-35B. Besides Turkey is buying additional aircraft, the Canadians are coming forward with their decision and who knows how many other nations will buy.

    The production value of the F-35 even with reduced numbers will ensure that its cheaper than a new build of 4th gen aircraft. Sad but true. Critics are latching onto the low rate production numbers to make hay and slam the program…but even when looking at Air Force budget numbers (thanks ELP) you can see that the F-35’s price plunges to around the mid 80 mil price point.

    Sorry guys but ya’ll are wrong. The F-35 is the real deal.

  28. B.Smitty permalink
    November 3, 2009 4:57 pm


    The F-15SG/K prices are based on very small numbers and are pretty solid. A large, multi-year USAF buy would be significantly cheaper.

    The unit price of the F-35 is far more suspect, given the early stages of testing and complete lack of realistic total number projections (can the USAF afford 1700? 1200? 800? Less?).

  29. November 3, 2009 4:08 pm

    Nope Eric…can’t see it…the price for the F-15K or a NEW build F-15E is estimated at approx 110 million dollars. The F-35 is just slightly more and has stealth. Its what the “pauper” Air Force needs. God I hope they kill the F-22 line post haste so this debate can end!

  30. November 3, 2009 4:00 pm

    The F-35 might actually be successful someday. The problem is—faith-based marketing hopes and dreams aside—is that we don’t know. It is burning up cash that the pauper USAF (the biggest F-35 buyer) doesn’t have over the long haul.

    The difference between the F-35 and legacy jets still in production is that the legacy jets are good enough for most jobs and have knowns. F-35 isn’t tested to any worth any time soon.

    Once a first team IADS is killed off or subdued (F-22, B-2, Tomahawk, JASSM etc), we don’t need a stealth aircraft for much. Legacy jets can drop PGMs and kill things easy ones the big area SAMs and enemy aircraft are done with. “I can touch you… but you can’t touch me”. As a sub 4-meter CEP JDAM and JSOW is pretty hard to deter when you can’t reach the platform that is dropping it because all you have left are medium range SAMs, smaller SAMs and MADPADS, Triple-A, and trashfire. And those remaining threats if need be killed will be like shooting fish in a barrel because of 24-7 ISR.

    Then comes thinning of the herd. If there are any conventional-traditional enemy (not 4th gen warriors) land units, they are going to get culled out. Where since the big IADS are now killed off, legacy jets with JDAM etc can slaughter heavy equipment, logistics, C3, C4 and aided by persistent surveillance of ISR. Not a pretty picture.

    All this can be done without the Just-So-Farcical.

  31. November 3, 2009 3:33 pm

    Mike…I luv ya guy…but you’re WRONG!

    The F-35 combines alot of the sensors and avionics that are add-ons in the F-16 and F/A-18. You want a real price for the cost of a legacy airplane? Look at the F-15SG or F-15K that Singapore and Korea bought. 4th Generation legacy airplanes with upgrades that cost over 100 million dollars a piece. That’s right 100 mill. Wheeler is a noted aviation theorist, however he is what I would call a purist. Many people search him out for his critique of the F-22 and F-35. They stop there. However if you push further you’d have a guy that would advocate for the F-16 in its first iteration. Big engine, little avionics and high speed. I don’t even think he has much admiration or thinks highly of beyond visual range missiles or combat.

    The F-35 brings more to the table than can be realized by a quick glance at the cost tables, theoretical weapons load out etc…dig a little deeper and you’ll realize that its a winner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: