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.
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.
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:
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 Medium.com, 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.