Following the Numbers on Airpower
If you look to history to find answers for today’s concerns, you will come to some eye-opening conclusions. For instance, Frank Chadwick at Great History details the amazing Post-Vietnam transformation of the US Air Force which gave us war-winning platforms like the F-15, F-16, and the A-10 warplanes. When he gets to the part where the stealth bombers like the B-2 Spirit and the F-117 Nighthawk join the inventory, he notices something happening, such as the dramatic decline in numbers purchased. Then he brings us to today:
We have new generations of aircraft which are so expensive we cannot procure enough to even come close to replacing existing aircraft as they wear out. The B-2 Spirit bomber has a per-unit all-up procurement cost of over two billion dollars.
Two billion dollars per bomber!
As a result, aircraft buys are tiny – and not because we are starving the military. Our defense budget is larger than that of every other country on the planet combined, and we still can only afford a total of twenty B-2 Spirits. We have been buying a trickle of F-22 Raptors each year, and only managing that – as its cost escalated through the stratosphere – by robbing the procurement funds for the F-35 Lightning II.
The decision this year to shut down F-22 Raptor production and re-channel the available funds into F-35 Lightning II production shows an emerging glimmer of sanity. Unit costs on the Raptor have ended up at over 300 million dollars per aircraft, although if we cranked up the assembly lines and really started grinding them out we could get that down to about 150 million per aircraft. (Oh boy!)…
In 2007 we had to temporarily ground 700 older F-15 Eagles pending upgrades. We are currently in the unbelievable – and to the best of my knowledge unprecedented – position of having an air force which has an average aircraft age older than the average age of the warships currently in service with the US Navy!
Frank has more confidence in the Lightning II than yours truly, which I think overall might be getting us deeper in the hole, especially as the deployment time is slipping further away. We needed this plane about a decade ago, but progress waits for no one, and I am not sure but if the new UCAVs already in service might have displaced the need for a $60-$100 million manned jet fighter. About the best thing we can say concerning JSF, it is not a 20 year old airframe–except in concept.
The new warplanes are becoming harder to build while the drones are getting better and staying affordable. Plus you can buy fewer of them, without putting a pilot at risk or paying for the latter’s years of college and flying experience. Just as it did after Vietnam, technology saves the day! Interesting times…