F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor extremely expensive

Air Force's hunter-killer UAV MQ-9 Reaper

The Economist titled “The last manned fighter” in an article about the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the most expensive defense project in history. The wildly over budget Joint Strike Fighter project will cost around USD 382 billion after several cuts. That’s near the 2011 GDP of South Africa (USD 408 billion) and above Thailands GDP (USD 345 billion).

The aim of the Joint Strike Fighter program was to achieve huge efficiency gains by replacing most of the ageing fleet of USAF, Navy and Marines military aircraft:

    • USAF General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon (replaced by F-35 A)
    • USAF Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II (replaced by F-35 A)
    • US Navy Boeing A/F-18 Hornet (Carrier variant F-35C)
    • US Marines McDonell Douglas AV8B jump jet (replaced by F-35B, the STOVL variant)

With unit cost of USD 154m for the F-35A, USD 237.7m for the F-35B and USD 236.8m for the F-35C it is really questionable if the efiiciency gains are still high with this figures. The Pentagon publicly criticized Lockheed Martin’s performance on the F-35 program.  MiGFlug’s American branch FlyFighterJet.com recently published an interesting blog post about the extremely expensive Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor being defeated by German Eurofighters in a dogfight during a joint military exercise. The F-22 is the larger, twin-engine 5th generation fighter with similarities, the F-35 drew elements from it. The unit cost for the F-22 Raptor is around USD 400m.

Today it seems the efficiency gains planned with the F-35 failed, but huge efficiency gains are made by using drones for many tasks.

More drone pilots trained this year in the USAF

The development is impressive: Not only did UAV attacks rise tenfold under president (and 2009 Nobel Peace Price awarded) Barack Obama, in 2012 more drone pilots than ordinary fighter jet and bomber pilots have been trained. The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) make up the fastest growing segment within the US Air Force. As pointed out above: This is hardly surprising as the 5th generation fighter F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II are extremely over budget.

The drone pilots trained for remote warfare start as students at Holloman Air Force base. Even pilots who always had the dream to fly a real fighter jet start volunteering to fly Predator drones and other UAVs. The main reason is budget cuts for traditional fighter jets and a shift after the 9/11 attacks with the assymetric and borderless war against Al Qaida and the Taliban that followed. We had a talk with Steve about the changes in aerial warfare (first name only to help protect his identity). Steve is exactly one of those born to be a fighter pilot, who now teaches students how to fly UAVs at Holloman AFB. “I would prefer to fly real fighter jets, but we started to see our squadrons disappear”. Steve is still convinced that there are tasks that will have to be done by manned fighter aircraft for the time coming. Sensors can’t compensate everything. But the development is stunning: All sizes are being built,  rumors about an insect spy drone that can not only spy but also inject toxins into enemies are probably not true (or a few years early). But the field for UAVs is huge, and as Steve points out: Often the weak point is the pilot, and we have to invest in his safety. When a UAVs is lost, we don’t have to rescue the drone, we just send another one.

Fighter Jets for Airshows only?

So, in the end, will we see Fighter Jets at airshows only? Are manned fighter aircraft the dinos of the sky anytime soon? Probably not very soon, but more and more tasks will be shifted to drones, that’s for sure. And that development will remain fast. And one thing is for sure: When a few fighter jets are used for airshows only, the Russians have the lead. If you don’t believe it, watch this MiG-29 OVT video:

The MiG-29 OVT  is the vector thrust variant. Video has been taken at MAKS airshow on Zhukovsky Airbase near Moscow. Incredible performance, if you are in a hurry watch 05:48 – 06:05.


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