Last Stand for the Armored Knight

The armored knight has dominated human combat probably since somebody first figured out how to slap on boiled leather armor. The immense advantage of armor, especially when combined with the mobility conferred by putting him on horseback meant that one of these guys could dominate and appropriate much of the earnings of dozens or hundreds of his fellows. Technology has caused the value of the armored knight to fluctuate a bit, but in his current incarnation, as F-35 pilot, his equipment alone costs the full annual salary of almost ten thousand of his fellow citizens (as much as $350 million apiece for the Navy's F-35C).

His day may be ending though. The problem is that the pilot not only adds a lot less value than he used to, but that he is becoming the weakest link in the weapons system. His eyes have long since been supplanted by longer range radar and his acceleration tolerance is far below that of steel and solid state electronics. He is bulky and fragile, and his job might be done better by a guy sitting in an air-conditioned control room on the ground.

The F-35, says Navy Secretary Ray Maybus “should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.”

Todd Harrison has the story in Forbes:

...I think Secretary Mabus is likely to be proven correct in his prediction because physics, physiology, and fiscal facts are on his side.

First, the way air-to-air combat is conducted has changed. As my CSBA colleague, Dr. John Stillion, notes in a recently released report, Trends in Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority, ”over the past few decades, advances in electronic sensors, communications technology, and guided weapons may have fundamentally transformed the nature of air combat.” He goes on to write that for about the first fifty years of aviation, “pilots relied on the human eye as the primary air-to-air sensor and machine guns and automatic canon as their primary weapons.” But the human eye can only spot an aircraft-sized target up to about 2 nautical miles in range, and aircraft cannon are only effective to less a nautical mile.

The introduction of air-to-air radars and missiles transformed air combat beginning in the 1960s. In his study, Dr. Stillion compiled and analyzed a database of more than 1,450 air-to-air combat engagements around the world from 1965 to the present. What he found is that through the late 1960s and 1970s, short-range air-to-air missiles began to overtake guns as the dominate means for air-to-air kills, not just for the U.S. military but for foreign air forces as well. During in the 1980s and 1990s, missiles that could operate beyond visual range overtook short-range missiles as the primary means for shooting down opposing aircraft. As Stillion notes, this means that the success of fighter pilots is no longer “linked to what they can physically see through the cockpit canopy, but what they glean from cockpit displays.”

The US is in the process of spending a trillion dollars plus for the soon to be dinosaur F-35s - or more than $3000 for every man, woman and child in the country. Meanwhile, our potential rivals in the world clearly see the opportunity to make the leap to the next generation of fighter jets: better, faster, cheaper and minus the pilots.


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