Future Of Air Combat

F-35 or F-22?

Today’s entry is going to be totally off the wall for this blog and is going to be about fighter jets. Bear with me… A couple weeks ago, Pleiades gave me the heads up on this article about the development of the F-35 and how it might be a turkey.

While all attention is on tax and falling markets, an even more important event for Australia and our region is unfolding: the trillion-dollar Joint Strike Fighter project has begun the early stages of a painful and extended death rattle. This threatens to inflict major harm on our defence partner, the United States, and the JSF is by far the largest military obligation in Australia’s history.

Even worse, we convinced our defence manufacturing industry to tool up to be major JSF contractors. As a result, a huge chunk of our defence manufacturing support capacity faces a financial disaster. Three companies have already failed. The long-term air defence planning of the US and Australia is now in tatters.

These are extreme statements which will, as always, be denied by the top brass in the Australian Defence Department. I have been warning about the dangers of the JSF for close to a decade and the defence officials, whose reputations are at risk, have always thrown cold water on my comments. Now, at last, the US marines have decided to tell the truth about the JSF in the American national interest. And the truth confirms all our worst fears.

But it is not all bad news because the US marines are also offering a solution. And better still, if Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith are courageous enough to bypass our reputation-preserving defence chiefs, and back the US marines’ solution, Australia can play a big role in overcoming the JSF problem. We would also maintain the significant US role in the air defence of our region and ensure survival for the large areas of Australia’s defence manufacturing that is hitched to the doomed JSF.

Few Australians will have heard of Major Christopher J Cannon, an operations analyst with the US Marines. Major Cannon did not tell the truth about the JSF by talking to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Rather he did something far more powerful – he told the truth in the Marine Corps Gazette under the heading “F-35B (JSF) needs a Plan B”.

The link within the article links to another article that has this nice bit:

What about acquisitions costs? From program start in 2001, the JSF was estimated to cost $233 billion5 for total program acquisition.6 This was the teaser price, the estimate grew to $245 billion in 2004, $279 billion in 2007, and in 2008 the JSF program office’s estimate was $300 billion,7 a 29 percent increase over the original figure. However, GAO found that this 2008 estimate was not reliable, comprehensive, accurate, well documented, or credible. Worse, no uncertainty analysis has been conducted (acquisition may cost $298 billion; it may cost $500 billion). The only thing that is certain, the $300 billion estimate was “virtually certain to be wrong.”8 In 2010, after a Nunn-McCurdy breach—a required formal review whenever program costs increase anywhere from 15 percent to 50 percent over expectations—GAO’s latest 2011 estimate is a total JSF program acquisition cost of $383 billion. Using coarse analysis and acknowledging that from 2001 to 2011 estimated program cost grew about $16.7 billion a year, when IOC begins in 5 more years we might expect a $466 billion acquisition cost—exactly double the original estimate.

I’d hate to be up for that much money. The development for the F-35 has been one of those fraught projects where there are probably graveyards for careers of people who were put in charge to project manage it. The closest thing to the developmental debacle this project has been, is probably the Robert McNamara inspired F-111. The story of the F-111 was that it was an attempt to build a fighter bomber that was capable of covering all the bases with one aircraft instead of parallel development of different fighters and bombers.Instead the project ended up with an aircraft that pleased nobody except the Australians.

If the F-22 is already developed and can take over from our FA-18, then it seems crazy to keep throwing good money after bad in the development of something that is likely to be a camel-by-committee design fighter jet.

Today we find even the Economist has weighted in on just howmuch this thing is costing and whether it is worth it.

As China and other countries develop more accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, able to hit moving targets 1,000 miles away, America and its allies have become worried about the aircraft-carriers they have relied upon as a principal means of projecting power since 1945. Those worries are not much helped by the carrier version of the F-35 which, without external fuel tanks, has a combat radius of only 680 miles. The US Navy’s response has been to propose what it calls the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike aircraft. It has already asked for financing and hopes—somewhat optimistically—that it will enter service by 2018. If a big, long-range UAS can operate safely from a congested carrier flight deck at sea, that would go some way to allaying fears for the future of aircraft-carriers.

The future of aerial combat is likely to be between drones, not manned fighters. If the Chinese are simultaneously developing missile systems to make carrier systems obsolete AND they’re building carriers, then there’s an argument to be made that the era of carriers is over. Just as Joe Kennedy thought it was time to get out of shares when a shoe shine boy offered him advice, the advanced nations of the world should get out of carriers if a country with a poor naval record such as China starts playing with them. We are not going to see a battle between carriers as we did in World War II, and nor should we given that war is over 66years ago. World War I sure wasn’t fought on the same technology as the US Civil War. It’s doubtful even the Vietnam War and Desert Storm are going to offer us any indication of what the next war is going to look like.

However we do know the shape of the war we are fighting, and it is increasingly through unmanned ‘drones’.

The British Ministry of Defence suggests the answer is: perhaps. In a thoughtful document on the British approach to UAS earlier this year, the ministry’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre argued that if the controlling system addressed the principles of the law on armed conflicts (military necessity, humanity, proportionality and the ability to distinguish between military targets and civilians) and if the rules of engagement were satisfied, then an armed strike would meet legal norms. However, it goes on to say that the software testing and certification of such a system would be expensive and difficult. And decisions about what is proportionate often require fine distinctions and sophisticated judgment. The authors conclude: “As technology matures and new capabilities appear, policymakers will need to be aware of the potential legal issues and take advice at a very early stage of any new system’s procurement cycle.”

David Deptula, a retired general who was until recently in charge of the US Air Force’s intelligence and surveillance operations agrees. He recently told Jane’s Defence Weekly: “Technologically, we can take [autonomy] pretty far, but it won’t be technology that is the limiting factor, it will be policy.” The Air Force’s chief scientist, Mark Maybury, points out that there will be an almost infinite combination of contingencies facing drones. Designing systems that ensure they respond in a safe and effective way may take a decade or more. Evangelists for drones concur that even when there is no longer “a man in the loop” piloting a UAS directly, it will still probably be necessary to have humans “on the loop” monitoring and intervening.

The ethical problems do not end there. There may be nothing in the laws of war saying combatants must be willing to put themselves in harm’s way, but some find creepy the idea of a UAS pilot stationed in Nevada driving home for supper with the family a few hours after surgically killing dozens of people in Pakistan. The peculiar detachment of drone warfare has given people close to the receiving end of drone attacks some success in depicting America’s use of them as the cowardly action of a bully sheltering behind superior technology. Looking farther ahead, there are fears that UAS and other robotised killing machines will so lower the political threshold for fighting that an essential element of restraint will be removed.

These kinds of caveats aside, the trend of high tech war has been extending to lessening risk for the high tech party in its war against the lower tech foe; the increasing accuracy of pin-point strikes; the asymmetrical ‘whup’ combat model that has come in where a great disparity in firepower and capability are seen. If the UAS system isn’t a manifestation of exactly those trends, it’s hard to think of what is more so.

Further to that is the lower cost of training a drone team compared to a combat aviator and then the readily available talent thanks to computer games and you begin to see a picture where he Top Gun model of combat aviators going into battle in the skies is firmly the thing of the past. History is marching right by the F-35 development. It is well worth asking if our government should be paying money for this expensive turkey.

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