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Drones Are the Future of War, So Why Is the Pentagon Spending Over $1 Trillion on the F-35 Fighter Jet?

Source: Andy Wolfe, U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.

To the left is an F-35. It is -- at least in theory -- the pinnacle of American military aviation.

The F-35 has been in development since the 1990s, when by rare coincidence the three branches of the American military that fly all approached Congress with multibillion-dollar requests for aircraft updates. It is the result of the Joint Strike Fighter program, which resulted in Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) gaining a virtual monopoly on next-generation military aircraft production. From day one, it was designed to serve the needs of the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps simultaneously, incorporating the vertical takeoff and landing features of Britain's Harriers with modern radar-evasion technology and speed sufficient to break the sound barrier.

Each F-35 will cost the Pentagon at least $159 million, before factoring in the staggering maintenance expenditures that are expected to soar well past a trillion dollars over the F-35's potential half-century of service. With a total of 2,443 F-35s slated for purchase, the lifetime cost of each jet is likely to reach at least $600 million.

The first test flight of the F-35 took place in 2006. It will not enter operational service for the Marines until late 2015. The Air Force is targeting an operational service date at the end of 2016, and the Navy expects its variant to begin service in 2019.

Source: Brigadier Lance Mans of the NATO Special Operations Coordination Centre, via Wikimedia Commons.

To the right is a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV -- a drone. The military -- at least in theory -- uses it to blow up extremists hiding in caves.

The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, which is perhaps the most famous of the military drones, was first introduced in 1995 as an unmanned aerial surveillance platform, and has since been upgraded with missiles to better take out cave-cowering extremists.

The Predator was used to locate terrorist Osama bin Laden, wanted at the time for bombings in 1993 and 1998, a year before Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center. Since its first use, Predators have flown over a million hours of operations for the American military, and have made a large number of the estimated 4,700 kills recorded by American UAVs by the start of this year, according to Senator Lindsay Graham.

The U.S. Air Force ordered 268 Predator drones before shifting to more advanced UAV platforms in 2011. Each Predator costs roughly $5 million. The lifetime cost of deploying 2,443 F-35s could equip the Air Force with 290,000 Predator drones.

One of these aircraft is the future of warfare, and the other is not. So why is the clunky F-35 -- over budget, behind schedule, and already embarrassing Pentagon leaders into publicly lambasting its development as "acquisitions malpractice" -- the recipient of such persistent support, while the growing U.S. military UAV program is the target of so much outrage?

Let's face it: the future of warfare isn't going to have a lot of human beings on the battlefield. The sooner military planners accept and adapt to that reality, the sooner resources can begin to flow away from obsolete strategies and toward the real fight for the future. Unfortunately, it seems like that shift may come too late to adapt to the new realities of combat.

Misplaced priorities
The Army began to show a serious interest in automated warfare around the same time as the Predator began to take on a larger role in the war against terror. The "Future Combat Systems" program, was set in motion in 2003 and advanced in 2005 with a projected $130 billion outlay for robotic support and other technological upgrades, with a long-term goal of replacing front-line troops with capable robotic soldiers. However, that ambitious program was canceled outright in 2009 and replaced with a more modest modernization effort that now "emphasizes the role of battle-tested soldiers" rather than robotic brigades. The Pentagon's most recent procurement budget has little in the way of funding for autonomous or unmanned systems, and much of that is going toward buying more drones:

Source: United States Department of Defense .

In percentage terms, the UAV purchase program is about 5% of about 27% of the entire Pentagon weapons-buying program, or just over 1% of the total purchase allocation. Other autonomous systems are still primarily in the development phase -- with the exception of the $400,000 iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT  ) PackBot (over 3,000 have been deployed since 2002), few autonomous ground-based systems have seen much use in the American military. The Pentagon's robotics development program doesn't appear to be its highest funding priority, either, as funding for robotics R&D hasn't been updated on the budget since 2012's $11 million outlay. The Navy's unmanned X-47B, a more advanced drone that looks like the infamous B-2 stealth bomber -- perhaps unsurprising in light of the fact that both aircraft were developed by Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC  )  -- has cost $813 million to develop, which is about half a percent of the expected lifetime cost of the F-35 program.

Wages of war
A single lost F-35 would be worth about 120 Predator drones, and its destruction also risks the life of a highly trained pilot. Digital war games conducted by the RAND think tank in 2008 highlighted just how real a risk that is, as a hypothetical Chinese attack devastated a hypothetical American F-35 fleet in battle over Taiwan. While F-35 developer Lockheed Martin fiercely defended its aerial cash cow to the press, there have been more than enough instances of public condemnation to cast doubt on the F-35's ultimate usefulness in battle.

The F-35 -- and, indeed, most of the military's arsenal -- is built around assumptions generated from World War II, the last symmetric war. David Axe, in his exhaustive feature on the F-35's shortcomings published on, points out that the Marines learned to crave jet fighters that could take off in minimal distances after fighting without air support in the Asian jungles against the Japanese. These helicopter-like jets, the theory went, would free the Marines from reliance on the Navy's aircraft carriers or on secured full-length runways, an understandably scarce resource on tropical battlegrounds. The Army has over 8,000 tanks and over 18,000 total armored fighting vehicles, but it's learned that these multimillion-dollar behemoths can be rather easily taken out by cheap explosives -- by 2005, over 80 of the Army's 1,100 deployed Abrams tanks were effectively disabled in Iraq by combatants using little more than improvised roadside bombs.

The last symmetric war wasn't decided on technological superiority alone, but numeric superiority as well. The Allies fielded an incredible 227,235 tanks and 633,072 aircraft in World War II, far outstripping Axis production. When your enemy is lobbing rockets at you from a cave, you don't need to send $600 million jets or nearly $10 million tanks to blow them up. And when your most advanced weapon designs can be hacked and stolen by the only feasible symmetric enemy on the planet (China has already launched a prototype jet that distinctly resembles the F-35 without all the weaknesses created by vertical takeoff capabilities), you're left trying to field more of those weapons rather than hoping to outclass the enemy. However, if you can solve both problems by either the tactical or massed deployment of unmanned systems, why would you continue to use human soldiers on the front lines at all?

The Pentagon wants to keep the F-35 in service for at least a half-century. So much can happen in the next 50 years that it seems unlikely to expect this next-gen jet to maintain its technological edge for even a decade after its first deployment. A large force of inexpensive unmanned and robotic warriors would be easier to upgrade, cheaper to replace, and far less of a strategic risk to deploy on the front lines than the manned tanks, planes, and ships on which the U.S. military now relies. For the security of the future, we should hope that the Pentagon realizes this without first suffering a catastrophic loss of its flagship hardware.

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Read/Post Comments (31) | Recommend This Article (6)

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  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 2:55 PM, catfish86 wrote:

    Good criticism which is important to push thinking. The cornerstone of our democracy. Some of the Star Wars movies showing invasions with drone armies should be critical for war planners to watch. Now to some criticism of this article.

    The reason the cheap predator can roam freely four hours and days at a time is that our air superiority is unquestioned. Saddam even chose to have his air force flee than simply lose them. With kill ratios on an order of 120 to 1, who can blame him. The stealth capabilities of this aircraft will continue to maintain that superiority. Air superiority takes the ancient advantage of holding the high ground to a new level.

    You pointed out that our systems can be hacked. With manned systems, you have the soldier/pilot who simply loses an advantage but adapts to the situation and moves on. Our soldiers are notorious for their ability to do this.

    But that is the very weakness of the unmanned systems. Example is the drone lost to Iran who simply hacked it and landed it at their own airfield.

    You may have more traction in asking whether we have started to develop unmanned fighter jets for the most dangerous first missions to disable enemy air defense assets.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 2:58 PM, TheAncient wrote:

    There is another reason besides drones that make the F-35 obsolete within 10 years and maintaining a 60 year contract for them fiscally foolish. The development of radar capable of overriding stealth. Russia, China and India are already invested in finding methods to bypass the effects of detecting stealth aircraft. Also, in order for the F-35 to provide worthwhile ground support it would have to ignore its own stealth by mounting ordinance on the wings. For true and effective ground support nothing is better than an A-10. Certainly old school, but ask the troops on the ground being threatened by nearly being overrun by bad guys, if that matters. Plus the F-35 could never take the punishment an A-10 can and still fly. With its limited 4 missile internal payload an F-35 will never be good in a protracted fight, offense or defense.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 3:05 PM, Seafairer wrote:

    Sometimes you just have to reach out and "touch" someone.....stealthily.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 3:17 PM, farron1 wrote:

    Great article. Many military strategists have been arguing these points for years. Are we following the Strategy of the former Soviet Union in spending only for military gain until our economy collapses under the strain of such outlandish spending? We need to look at new ideas which cost less and accomplish more. It is within our technology reach now. The F-35 is the epitome of extreme cost with an overreach of functions that are potentially very vulnerable. In the final analysis there will be little if any gain.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 3:21 PM, Rolland wrote:

    Nothing to add except to say the B-52 was the best investment as far as aircraft go. Guess you can't stop technology or the cost.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 3:49 PM, phil4fish wrote:

    I think I'll leave military strategy and capability opinions to those in the military or at least in that industry, not to someone who looks to have little or no connection to military aviation. This article is not worth reading, it just seems so utterly flawed in its criticisms.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 4:57 PM, actionjo wrote:

    The author of this article clearly knows nothing about waging war or military strategy. It's best the author stick to picking sticks and leave the extremely complex and nuanced art of warfare to the professionals.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 5:21 PM, Elbowpong wrote:

    I guess spending that Trillion on peaceful endeavors that would reduce the necessity of war is completely off the table.


    Sometimes, I'm embarrassed when humans call themselves an "intelligent species."

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 5:21 PM, JoeLemon wrote:

    Written by the same people saying Consoles are going away, because everyone wants to play games on there phones. Even though games like GTA V make over a billion in a weekend and the ps4 and xbox one are the highest selling consoles on release. Or the same people saying desktops are going away for the last 20 years. Or that everything is going all digital.

    1 more article written by someone that has no idea what he is talking about.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 5:47 PM, Badgenumber150 wrote:

    Even though the F18 has been upgraded to "Super Hornet" it's still a 25 year old airframe. Same thing for the F15 & F16. Note: They said the same thing in the 70's, "Why do we need new aircraft? We have the F4!" I share the concerns about how expensive military aircraft have become but, we're due. Drones are part of the arsenal, but not a substitute for the human element. (Yet.) All that cutting-edge technology costs money. The U.S.A.F. can put a 2000 lb. bomb through any window on planet Earth within 24 hours of getting the order to do so. I like that. At least these things "promote the general welfare" of the nation, like is states in the Constitution. What I have a problem figuring out is how $6 billion worth of free cell phones does.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 5:58 PM, munkle wrote:

    It is war that has no future. The drones are only to be used against us. Why do these articles automatically assume there must be war?

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 6:16 PM, badkat7 wrote:

    The problem with the F-35 is that it does nothing well. In dogfight scenarios it's been demonstrated that even a European Typhoon can best the F-35. So what about stealth? The internal capacity of the F-35 can accommodate a maximum of 4 missiles of which 2 can be air-to-air. Want more? Sure, there are 4 external hard points but of course the second you load those up you can kiss goodbye to stealth.

    What about ground attack? To achieve the same penetration as the A-10 the F-35 must fly close to supersonic speeds. Fuel burn rates are astronomic at low altitude, high speed so time on target and in support of ground troops will be VERY short whereas an A-10 could linger - putting the fear of God into the enemy and boosting morale.

    What about VTOL? The F-35B is rated as "part time VTOL due to excessive component wear" especially on the lift fan which is driven off the engine. The poor Brits. They now have an aircraft carrier that will NEVER carry even a single aircraft (The earliest the F-35B will be delivered is 2020 and every indications are that it will not be a successful carrier aircraft). Incidentally, the F-35 has an inferior thrust to weight ratio compared to the F-15 AND F-22! Heck, in certain modes of use even the Harrier GR9 has a superior thrust to weight ratio!

    Reliability? Well even looking beyond the severe limitations of the F-36B variant, the stupid aircraft has only one engine. Lose the engine, lose the aircraft.

    Basically the F-35 program needs to be cancelled. The F-22 is the ultimate air superiority machine but we have precious few of them. We need to restart production or, perhaps more practical, develop the aircraft further. Yes it would cost (about $200 million to restart the line) but at least it will give us a superior machine.

    The A-10 still has a decade of life in it so we have time to develop a superior grand attack and ground support aircraft. Heck, we could develop a drone that does an equivalent or superior job within just a few years!

    In terms of carrier and marine operation we really need to revisit the Boeing design - reduce the missions to carrier and marine support and you could cheaply (relatively) perfect the ultimate VTOL/STOL attack aircraft.

    So why do we still have the F-35 program? Because contractors (Lockheed) and many corrupt politicians want it. You and I have been recruited to line their pockets with gold.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 6:16 PM, onthlostv wrote:

    Because the defense industry funds the GOP. We fight wars for money. gas. minerals. If you think we do this to help our fellow man or for democracy you are really a DREAMER. This about it you own a complex worth hundreds of millions of dollars that make missiles. If the armed forces do not use any they do not order any. How do you keep your business going ?? You jockey leverage world affairs to we become involved in conflicts. We use missiles and then we ORDER MORE. A very simple process. All you do is wave the flag here and folks say lets go get them, not knowing even why we are getting them....

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 6:23 PM, badkat7 wrote:

    BTW. The use of drones really only applies to limited tactical wars. In a strategic war the first casualty would be satellites and radio communications in general. So unless the drones can prosecute their entire mission without user intervention, they would be rendered useless in short order. Similarly you would lose GPS within hours of a strategic war commencement so navigation would need to be independent of satellites. There remains a real need for manned aircraft for the foreseeable future even though drones can be both enticing and effective in limited conflagrations.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2014, at 11:17 PM, km4hr wrote:

    What's there to prevent drones from being shot down? Don't they just lumber along in a straight line? Wouldn't a piloted fighter jet be able to bring them down like doves at a dove shoot? So far they've been successful against nomads in the desert that have no air defense capability. They might not work so well against a real opponent.

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 12:05 AM, warhorse03826 wrote:

    drones have a limited number of channels to work with. once the AI gets better, this will be less of a problem, as the drones will just be checking in for new orders and transmitting what it just did compressed for time.

    that said, drones can be hacked. they rely on GPS ad other signals to navigate. they can be given false orders or the channels can be jammed entirely. a non-high-tech enemy will not have as much of a problem operating under a wide-spectrum white noise transmitter as we will.

    a manned aircraft has none of these issues. that said, we are rely far too much on stealth. stealth is good only against a narrow range of radar frequencies, and only if the receiver is close to the transmitter.. once they switch to LIDAR or passive IR or other detection methods, stealth aircraft are actually poor performers. they are not as able to take damage and continue flying, and if they do make it home they are harder to repair.

    we should upgrade the aircraft we have, integrating the F-22 and F-35 technology as we go. at the same time we should put f-22 and f-35 on low rate production.

    this will give us both quantity and quality, as well as making the transition to the new technology easier for older pilots.

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 12:08 AM, fisterkev wrote:

    You ask WHY?

    One word: Pilots.

    Another hint: Career progression.

    You wanna know why, that is the real reason.

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 1:58 AM, dwduke wrote:

    Got to have a strong defense as a deterrent and to show China, Russia, and North Korea that the US still is the technological leader. However, there needs to be advances in boots on the ground warfare with terrorists, and rogue nations that go all out to give the US a black eye.

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 3:31 AM, SeniorMoment wrote:

    A drone has to be remotely controlled either through a satellite or directly by radio waves. Whilst the signal is going backwards and forwards the pilot has made the decision.

    Unless you can get signals to and from a drone at the speed of thought a plane will always have the advantage

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 8:55 AM, Grandpastu wrote:

    The external design and absorptive coatings on any stealth aircraft are seriously frequency limited. Any stealth aircraft can be made visible on a good radar with a high enough frequency, like 94gHz! There are usable radars at those higher frequencies and they are interesting to use against so-called stealthy craft!

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 9:53 AM, smilingdon wrote:

    How about consider the future of war is to avoid it and cherish peace instead?

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 9:55 AM, oldhistorian wrote:

    the issue here is hardly new or straightforward. but we must continually ask some hard questions:

    1) "for what war are we preparing, and what role must we play?" is china going to attack somewhere in the world where america is compelled to engage and stop them? or is it russia invading the middle east? or perhaps iran invading israel?

    2) and once we answer question 1, in 2014 we must now unfortunately ask "can we really afford it, and if so, will the cost to our economy be worth the expected outcome?"

    3) "what are the likely consequences of america's failure to act?"

    i'm unconvinced we are being honest enough with our answers to such questions.

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 11:19 AM, Scott2 wrote:

    Re: F35: wouldn't it be cheaper to just surrender and accept complete control by a sexy Dominatrix???

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 2:12 PM, GunPilot wrote:

    "Let's face it: the future of warfare isn't going to have a lot of human beings on the battlefield." <-- this statement proves the author doesn't have the chops to write this article. War is all about killing people and who else is going to be on the battlefield? Military planners are deluding themselves into thinking that combat is about "things" destroying other "things." Look at all the high-tech we used in Iraq and the result is that al-qaeda is there stronger than ever. And in Afghanistan the Taliban wore us down so that now we're declaring victory and washing our hands of that mess. We've yet to use drones against a foe as sophisticated as us, so let's not conclude that drones are the answer. That said, it's time to pull the plug on the F-35.

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 2:19 PM, rayrock1 wrote:

    “Drones Are the Future of War, So Why Is the Pentagon Spending Over $1 Trillion on the F-35 Fighter Jet?”

    Because the Air Force upper ranks are dominated by pilots.

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 5:08 PM, vet212 wrote:

    The supiriorety of manned aircraft over drones is almost unimaginable human flown aircraft are more flexible responsive AND intelligent they can change targets with NO reprogramming just an eyeball view drones also make war more palatable and for the warrior it wont be bad but for civilians it will be carnage just look at collateral damage in current drone strikes

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 5:51 PM, Grind wrote:

    The F-35 and the current drones are not the same platforms for a reason. They do two different missions. Drones are currently surveillance and Close Air Support (CAS) like missions. The F-35 does CAS and Air to Air missions. The latter requires high altitude, high airspeeds and RADAR to accomplish.

    I flew the A-10 and did a great deal of CAS. The current drone lacks the ability to carry large weapons loads as well as they lack the ability to point and shoot (30MM Gatling gun). I also flew the F-15C. Currently drones lack the ability to carry AIM-120 missiles and they also do not have the air to air radar required to support the missile during initial launch.

    I can see a future where the drone will be the primary weapon on a battle field but, we are not there yet. Our enemies whoever they may be range from people who have very little technology to people who have technology almost equal to ours and more weapons than we do.

    To compare the two, currently, is comparing apples to oranges.

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2014, at 7:55 PM, frellmedead wrote:

    Because the war profiteers and the politicians they have in their pockets run the pentagon.

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2014, at 8:39 AM, Dart14N wrote:

    "“Air power is like poker. A second-best hand is like none at all - it will cost you dough and win you nothing.” - George Kenney

    The argument in favor of buying more, cheaper remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA) is just bad economics. In an affluent economy like that of the US, skilled manpower costs much more than equipment. Manpower costs have gone up 160% in the last 10 years -- much faster than the F-35's 70%. RPA require 2-3 times as many people to support one airplane in the air, and their costs have gone up even faster: 300% for the Predator and 400% for the Global Hawk. We can buy 290,000 Predators, but we have manpower enough to fly about 60 at a time. If we were to ground every manned fighter and bomber, we could raise that to maybe 150.

    RPA are dependent on satellite communications, which are easily jammed. Take SATCOM away from a pilot, and he's still able to carry out his mission; take it away from a Predator, and it isn't. Autonomy isn't a good answer, unless you're willing to let a machine decide at whom to shoot (Skynet). During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Patriot missile batteries mistook friendly fighters for incoming ballistic missiles (!), killing two RAF and one US Navy crewmembers. And that was after 20 years of software development.

    All the arguments made against the F-35 were made against the B-52 and the AWACS when they were under development. "Too expensive", "too complicated", "better to upgrade a proven system". Yet the former have endured, while contemporaries that were evolutionary (such as the B-47 and the F-4E) are long gone.

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2014, at 11:37 AM, WKC wrote:

    Can you say Military Intelligence without laughing?

    They should teach economics and finance at the Academies as well as tactics, because they don't have a clue on a budget.

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2014, at 9:47 PM, cvxxx wrote:

    In war the quality of pilots makes the difference. Drones cannot do what having a pilot can. Yes cheap but not effective.

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