Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Stealth Questions

We’re spending quite a bit on stealth fighters:
Washington intends to buy 2,443 [F-35], at a price tag of $382 billion…Add in the $650 billion that the Government Accountability Office estimates is needed to operate and maintain the aircraft, and the total cost reaches a staggering $1 trillion…In other words, we're spending more on this plane than Australia's entire GDP ($924 billion).

Readers with sharp memories will recall James Fallows’s excellent article on the procurement process concerning the F-35, which tells the story of how the F-35 was supposed to be the cheap stealth fighter:
The United States built some 14,000 P-51 and 15,000 P-47 fighters during World War II. It built more than 6,000 of the main Korean War fighter, the F-86, plus more than 7,000 F-84s. It built 5,200 Vietnam-era F-4 fighters. Of the F-16s, designed to be cheap and numerous, the Air Force acquired just over 2,200. The current high-end fighter is the F-22—and the Air Force now plans to buy about 300. The capabilities of the new equipment do offset the diminished numbers, to some extent. But even in the military there is unease about how far the numbers have fallen—or, to use the military term, how much the force structure has shrunk.

The F-35 was supposed to counteract that; instead, we’re getting merely two hundred more than the previous iteration of the technology. Evidently, there’s quite a bit broken,
from execution to concept.

Execution: it’s odd that jet planes are so expensive, isn’t it? The issue isn’t just a military one; civilian planes have been getting more expensive. I’m guessing part of the issue is one of economics of scale—only 1,400 or so 747s have been made, as of September 2010, according to Wikipedia. But even so: inflation isn’t as dramatic for civilians as it is for the government. The 747-100 made in 1967 cost roughly $150,000,000 in today’s dollars; the latest 747 costs about double that. The per-jet cost for the military has gone up by a order of magnitude more. Besides, each successive 747 has added seating and other features—which actually delivers better service to more people. You’re getting more value for money. Can the same be said for the F-35? It’s undoubtedly more advanced with more gizmos; but was it necessary? The F-35 will dominate the sky—just as the F-22 and F-16 did.

The disruptive answer—execution-wise—may be to substitute all manned fighters with drones, anyway. You don’t have to risk pilots, who don’t have to worry about G-forces and all that. The current drones, I understand, don’t carry much of a payload but most disruptive solutions to current deadlocks appear inferior at first anyway.

The big-picture question is: why? Why do we need to spend so much on the military? Every dollar that’s spent on the military is money that could be spent on education, or day care, or infrastructure, or things that help people’s lives rather than end them.

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