Expensive Weapons of the Future

(The F-35 aircraft fighter is expected to be) the “fifth generation” fighter, far more effective in both its primary ground-attack role and air defence than “legacy” aircraft… (The costs of developing the F-35 are huge)but the cost of operating and supporting them are staggering: $1 trillion over the plane’s lifetime…

Even if America and some of its NATO allies cut their orders (of F-35), Lockheed Martin is confident that the numbers will be more than made up by countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. All these nations are rich and nervous of Beijing. Mr Burbage draws comparison with the F-16, of which more than 4,500 will be built over its long life.

But the longer-term outlook for the F-35 is uncertain. Its costly capabilities are intended to make it effective against the air defences of a sophisticated enemy, such as China. But the growing vulnerability of American aircraft carriers to Chinese missiles will mean operating from well beyond the F-35’s 600-mile (1,000km) range.

Some military strategists already think that the job the F-35 is meant to do can be better handled by cruise missiles and remotely piloted drones. In many roles, unmanned planes are more efficient: they carry neither a bulky pilot nor the kit that keeps him alive, which means they can both turn faster and be stealthier. And if they are shot down, no one dies. Even the F-35’s champions concede that it will probably be the last manned strike fighter aircraft the West will build.

Excerpts from, The defence industry: The last manned fighter, Economist, July 16, 2011, at 67

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