Manned Combat Aircraft Come to an End

In September, 2006, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, acting upon the July memorandum “Joint Programming Guidance VIII,” approved a plan to fund modernization and refurb of three Army and Navy intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft fleets though FY-10. This involves diverting over half a billion dollars from other defense accounts, including money previously allocated to what was to have replaced the Navy’s EP-3E and the Army’s Aerial Common Sensor and Airborne Reconnaissance Low aircraft.

The EP-3E was to have been replaced by a SIGINT version of the P-8A Multimission Maritime Aircraft, a highly modified Boeing 737-800 that is due to replace the Navy’s P-3C fleet starting in 2012-2014. However, the P-8A seems ever less likely to be built in any substantial numbers because of the cost in a time of ever more expensive asymmetric warfare and the Navy had already reduced the proposed total from 155 to108 aircraft. The Army had, instead, been developing a smaller airplane for their SIGINT needs and was working to develop an ERJ-145 variant until it became clear that this aircraft just couldn’t hack the mission because of inadequate power and cooling capabilities. The Army was therefore literally up in the air until this latest announcement. The P-8A, most recently estimated to cost approximately $370 million a copy (about $40 billion in total), is likewise seen as just too expensive to replace the EP-3E when another upgrade package will keep them flying through the next fifteen years. The Navy has all it can handle at present with the huge costs of the Littoral Combat Ship and DD(X), the next generation guided missile destroyer/cruiser, the latter of which costs' have risen to an approximate $6.6 billion a ship, horrifying Congress and probably dooming the class before it ever gets started.

Specifically, England’s memo means that in the next two years the Army will receive $290 million from defense wide accounts and the Navy $240 million for the EP-3 upgrade. This dollar-switching is possible in part because of the Army’s bailing from the proposed Lockheed Martin's $880 million system design and development contract for the ERJ-145-based new airplane.

England's decision instructs the Army and Navy to contribute $1.3 billion toward the ACS program though FY-11.

This development is likely part of a larger issue: the DOD’s largely unacknowledged rush to replace manned military aircraft with unmanned machines. The P-8A was to have been partnered with 50 new Navy UAVs under the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) Program to help make-up the difference between a fleet of 288 P-3Cs and only 108 P-8As. After stating that such an aircraft would be custom-built to serve the Navy, more recently, the Navy has been quietly suggesting that a more generic, perhaps inter-service UAV, would be substituted. This issue remains unresolved as almost monthly spending priorities are burned alive as the war on terror sucks-up all available military oxygen and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In August, 2006, the Navy bought a new MQ-9 Predator B UAVs, for $8.3 million, including ground control equipment, maintenance equipment and spares. The USAF also has some Bs, which can carry Hellfire missiles or smart bombs. Some Predator tests have included carrying radar and other sensors in testing maritime patrol duties.

Meanwhile, over at Light Blue Uniform Central, the US Air Force has announced that it is having a “hard time” developing a new bomber, again likely largely from the desire to go with an unmanned combat aerial vehicle whose technology does not yet exist but will within a decade. USAF generals are struggling with plans to field a new bomber by 2018 while reports indicate that “the needs for such a plane are not completely understood;” i.e. manned or unmanned. The generals that run the Air Force are former aircraft commanders and understandably view the replacement of aircrews with horror. Nor are Navy brass likely to be any more enthusiastic, although the Navy’s next long-range bomber is be the manned P-8A, the replacement for the P-3C. The Navy and Air Force have been testing unmanned candidates under the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program. While the Navy is moving forward with its part of the J-UCAS program and has successfully launched and recovered a VTOL UCAV aboard ship, the Air Force has been publicly less enthusiastic about J-UCAS as it has sought $5 billion in FY-08 for advanced research on the “next-generation strike platforms,” including a long-range unmanned bomber. In fact, Air Force officials have created an Analysis of Alternatives toward taking lessons learned from J-UCAS and defining its aerial platform needs. The Air Force has announced that it wants a 2017 operational capability for whatever it decides to build. It needs to be mentioned that the Air Force is also planning to fly the B-52 until 2040, at which time it will be flown by the great-grandchildren of the people who designed it.

The issue of cost shadows every Pentagon development program. Seven hundred of the new F-22s were to have been built. Now, with an estimated cost per unit of up to $240 million (an eye-popping total of $168 billion), the Pentagon says that number may be almost cut in half and that number may again be cut to as few as 183 (a total of $44 billion) to replace the USAF’s 800 F-15s, according to one general. The F-22 is the USAF’s last manned fighter. An unmanned F-22 (when the technology is created in the next decade) would cost 30-50% less per copy in 2006 dollars and would not endanger an aircrew – an issue ever more important to an ever larger uneducated portion of the American public that refuses to accept any combat deaths.

The speed at which military aircraft cockpits will be depopulated is likely to leave many breathless. It seems likely that many, if not most, of the next generation of military aircraft will be unmanned as the capability of unmanned systems continues to double every two years and remote control becomes more available world-wide. How the removal of aircrews from harm will effect how the US performs national defense remains to be seen.

An unmanned F-35 is already in development

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