Aviation in particular has been a success story for new technology, just the ability to fly has allowed us to shrink our world and brings us closer together with our neighbors. Faster travel has been made possible by the rapid development of newer capabilities, some of which have been useful. In military aviation, technology has produced today’s aircraft that do far more than similar ones of earlier years. Now, stealth technology is being used on the newest fighters and bombers – but will stealth increase or decrease our military capability?
Technology for it’s own sake can be a trap, just because a technology is available does not mean that we must put it in our aircraft. The US Air Force once thought that it needed a very large, supersonic, high altitude bomber. We spent millions of dollars on the XB-70 Valkyrie, which turned out to be too complex and expensive to buy or operate. The low technology B-52 Stratofortress first flew twelve years before the first XB-70, and it is still flying over 40 years after the Valkyrie program was abandoned. Airlines thought that a supersonic transport was the future on air travel, but after flying it for 27 years, the Concorde has been retired. The US never produced a supersonic transport, realizing earlier that it would never be profitable. The increased speed of travel was just not worth the proportionally higher costs of the ticket.
Now, we are requiring that new fighter aircraft have stealth technology – which vastly increases the cost of each airframe with debateable impact on maneuverability. Comparing costs is a tricky and controversial effort, but we could buy about five Boeing F-15E fighters for the cost of one Lockheed F-22 fighter. Five F-15Es, with ten sets of eyes, could cover a lot more territory than one F-22; that is one way of looking at the comparison. So what sort of threats might be out there? The Russians are testing their Sukhoi PAK-FA (sometimes called the T-50) stealth fighter, and the Chinese are testing their Chengdu J-20. But will they be deployable fighters? Or will they be a dead end which actually reduces their combat capability? The Russian PAK-FA is a single pilot aircraft with two engines, and is about the length of an F-15E, but it appears to be significantly heavier. Russian aircraft have not used titanium and composites to the extent that US aircraft have, and those two materials significantly reduce weight. The Chengdu appears to be 10,000 pounds heavier and ten feet longer even than the Boeing F-15E – so it does not appear to be optimized for air-to-air combat. It was recently described as being similar to the F/B-111, a long range bomber.
Which is better – more, lower-stealth aircraft or fewer, higher-stealth aircraft? According to the Navy’s fact sheet on the F-18 E/F, each one of them costs $57 million dollars. The similar fact sheet for the Air Force F-16 says that each costs 18.8 million dollars and the F-15E two-person strike fighter costs 31.1 million dollars each. The current cost of an F-22 stealth fighter is 122 million dollars. Of course there are many arguments about what those costs would actually be, but this gives us a basis for comparison. Now, this does not mean that you could just go up to the counter at Boeing and buy an F-15E for $31.1 million, but it does demonstrate the difference in cost between the various aircraft. For instance, in 2008, Korea bought the last of it’s 61 F-15 aircraft, and spent about 6 billion dollars on the fleet. That comes out to $100 million each – with training, spares, support, etc. This is for a known, two engine, two pilot aircraft. Israel is considering buying the stealth F-35 – a single engine, single pilot aircraft, and thinks that it will cost $135 million dollars each. That cost is likely to go up sharply, while delivery dates have been getting later and later. Stealth aircraft are so expensive that they are all being designed for a single pilot, since a larger aircraft is naturally more expensive. But we have often flown two person aircraft, such as the F-4 Phantom, to take advantage of the increased capability of two people in the aircraft. Incidents like the one 1994, when two Air Force single place aircraft shot down two Army Blackhawk helicopters in Iraq, would likely not happen if a two person F-15E was the intercepting aircraft. In that incident, two Air Force fighters flew past the Army helicopters – but the pilots were close to the ground and had to divide their attention between the helicopters and the terrain. Had a second person been in the Air Force aircraft, they could have taken a long, uninterrupted, look at the helicopters and probably correctly identified them. But a stealth aircraft is already so expensive that it is difficult to justify the cost. Adding a second crew position would add significant cost. Buying stealth aircraft has seriously reduced the total number of aircraft we have available – the Air Force bought 744 B-52 bombers but only 100 B-1B bombers and then only 21 B-2 aircraft.
When might we fly against a stealth aircraft? Very likely never. The Russian fighter might one day be a usable aircraft, but we have developed many deep connections with Russia both economically and in other ways – we jointly operate the International Space Station for instance. Russia is a marginally stable, authoritarian state, but we get along well with many similar countries. Our economic ties with China are very deep, we owe them tremendous amounts of money, and a conflict with them is difficult to imagine. And in previous conflicts when US aircraft have flown against Russian or similar Chinese aircraft (Vietnam, Libya, Lebanon) the superior US training, electronics, and weapons have proved to be the decisive measures.
When might we need one to penetrate an enemy’s sophisticated air defenses? Probably never. As we saw recently with operation Odyssey Dawn, the attack on Libya, the first sign that we were attacking would certainly be a wave of cruise missiles that destroyed air defenses, runways, and early warning installations. We could safely operate a World War 2 B-17 bomber over Libya right now. An attack on a better equipped country, say Iran, would also begin with a surprise assault on their air defenses and would quickly reduce their capability to a point where the average Korean War aircraft could safely operate there. In fact, the highest priority acquisition for the Air Force over the last few years has been in unmanned aerial vehicles. So if some of them are lost it would not be very significant.
Now, it is important to understand new technology – enough to know if it will be important in the next conflict. And for this reason we should acquire and operate some aircraft with stealth capability. But we should not buy a tiny number of expensive aircraft instead of a larger number of aircraft with proven technology. Hopefully, we will be able to balance the desire to incorporate new technology against the need to have a sufficient number of aircraft that they can support more than one conflict.