On December 20th, 2011, Japan announced that it had chose the US-made F-35 Lightening II to replace its aging F-4s as the mainstay of its air defence fleet. The JSDAF plans to buy 42 joint strike fighters for a total price of US$8 billion. The Lockheed Martin aircraft beat the BAE Systems Eurofighter Typhoon as well as the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet.
Japan has urgent need to modernize its defense forces. In addition, the steady rise of China as regional superpower with ambitions to develop power projection capabilities, there is always the destabilizing influence of a highly militarized and nuclear North Korea. The North Koreans like to shoot test missiles over the Japanese islands from time-to-time. It’s a charming habit, but not one likely to win them friends in Tokyo. The death of North Korean supremo Kim Jong-il, only increases the tension.
The selection of the F-35 isn’t too much of a surprise. One factor that surely swayed the Japanese was benefits of commonality. The JSDAF would be flying the same planes as their US Navy and Marine allies, allowing sharing of tactics, systems, weapons and parts. It is highly unlikely that many Eurofighter squadrons would find their way to Kyushu in the event of a Sino-Japanese conflict. This same reasoning may decide the South Korean government, which is eyeing a procurement order in 2012.
All good news for Lockheed Martin, as well as for Uncle Sam. Foreign orders makes each plane the USAF, USN and USMC buy that much cheaper thanks to economies of scale. It comes at a good time for Lockheed, as the F-35 has been plagued by cost overruns and technical difficulties. Much of this is due to the Byzantine culture that reigns over DoD procurement. Some of it, however, is unavoidable.
These aircraft incorporate “bleeding edge” technologies. And the pace of technological change is so much faster now than it was for previous generations of aircraft, that cost overruns and performance problems are to be expected. In fact, we can expect that the number and size of cost overruns and performance problems are likely to increase with each new generation of aircraft.
Sources: US Air Force FY2012 budget
The table above shows four aircraft deployed by the US Navy and Air Force, spanning three generations of technology. Unit cost is expressed in constant 2005 dollars to facilitate the comparison. What is evident is that each new generation costs approximately 3 times the preceding generation. The next generation of US military aircraft will therefore cost approximately $500 million dollars per unit – about half the cost of a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser. (1)
This is true not only of US aircraft. The Navy wanted to build a new class of stealth destroyers, the DDG-21 or Zumwalt class destroyer. Original plans were to build 32 of these advanced ships that would be undetectable until they’d shot a cruise missile through your hull. (2) Due to cost overruns and problems with the technology (sound familiar?) the procurement quantity was reduced to 24, then 7 and now stands at 2. They may be great ships, but what are you going to do with 2 destroyers??? The Navy came to the same conclusion in 2008 and told Congress that they wanted to build more of the current Arleigh Burke class destroyers. (3)
Each new generation results in fewer units. The D0D plans to buy 2,400 F-35’s (we’ll see if Congress actually funds that many through 2018). These will replace approximately 7,000 aircraft in three services (1,500 Navy F-18’s, 4,500 Air Force F-16’s, 700 Air Force A-10’s and 300 Marine AV-8B’s). Given that ratio, the next generation of US military fighter will consist of 822 aircraft and cost a total of $411 billion to procure. Assuming no cost overruns. The 7th generation will consist of 280 aircraft. The 8th generation will be 96.
Of course, the military argues that the increase in capabilities justifies the almost exponential increase in cost and reduction in numbers. The following exercises were conducted by the US Air Force, pitting F-22 Raptors against a mixed fleet of 4th generation aircraft, including F-15’s and F-16’s:
- Exercise Northern Edge ( June 2006): 12 F-22’s downed 108 adversaries with no losses in simulated combat exercises. In two weeks of exercises, the Raptor-led Blue Force amassed 241 kills against two losses in air-to-air combat; neither Blue Force loss was an F-22. (4)
- Red Flag 07-1 (Feb 2007): Fourteen F-22’s supported Blue Force strikes and undertook close air support sorties themselves. Against superior numbers of F-15’s and F-16’s, 6-8 F-22’s maintained air dominance throughout. No sorties were missed because of maintenance or other failures, and only one Raptor was judged lost against the opposing force’s defeat.F-22s also provided airborne electronic surveillance. (4)
These sorts of results seem to vindicate the supporters of the advanced technology fighters. Yet simulated combat conditions are not the same as real combat conditions, and there comes a point where you have very capable aircraft but too few of them for all the missions required of them. Remember the two Zumwalt destroyers!
Arthur C. Clarke published a short story in 1951 called “Superiority”. It is a work of science fiction, depicting a future military conflict in which the technologically superior side is defeated because it continually develops new wonder weapons instead of churning out tried-and-true models. Unfortunately for the losers, the wonder weapons are marvellous, but too few and too unreliable to sustain them. The are overwhelmed by the enemy’s “primitive” but numerically vastly superior forces. This story used to be required reading in the School of Industrial Design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (5) and it should be at all of the US Military Academies.
Without retreating into science fiction, a study of the Second World War will equally demonstrate the principal. Germany built a number of weapon systems that were technologically superior to anything the allies had: the Panzer V and Panzer VI tanks, the Me-262 jet fighter, the Wasserfall surface-to-air missile, to name a few. But the allies responded with vast numbers of M-4 Shermans and T-34 tanks, P-51 Mustangs and B-17 bombers. Simply put, we overwhelmed the superior German units, which were too few and too prone to breakdown.
Finally, this principal of ever escalating costs in a technological arms race of our own making has profound implications for future defense budgets. Especially now, in a time when “fiscal discipline” seems to be the only consideration on Capital Hill – except for defense. How much further can this go, before those 96 8th generation aircraft consume the entire Federal budget?
(1) US Navy Fact File: http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=800&ct=4
(2) National Defense Authorization Act FY2007
(3) “Navy: No Need to Add DDG 1000s After All”. DefenseNews. 1 August 2008.
(4) Lopez, C.T. “F-22 excels at establishing air dominance.” Air Force Print News, 23 June 2006