The F-35: The Last Manned Fighter Aircraft?
A common refrain when discussing the future of airpower is that ‘the F-35 is the last manned fighter’ and the future belongs to unmanned systems. The expanding use of unmanned air systems (UAS) such as Reapers and Predators against international terrorist networks implies a future of remote, push-button warfare. That entails minimal risk (on one side) for maximum tactical precision effect. The panorama of future battle is captured in targeting footage presented on evening news, and has become the centerpiece of movies—for instance, the excellent Eye in the Sky.
The 2016 Defence White Paper highlights Australia’s acquisition of an armed reconnaissance UAS for Army in the early 2020s (para 4.55), and seven unarmed MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Air Force (4.38). Army already makes extensive use of tactical surveillance UAS such as the RQ-7B Shadow 200, while RAN has completed experimentation with the ScanEagle UAVS, and may employ Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Firescout on the Future Frigates and the Canberra-class LHDs.
There’s huge potential for transformation associated with higher performance Unmanned Combat Air Systems (UCAS), epitomized by prototypes such as the Northrop Grumman X-47B, the BAE Systems Taranis, and the French Dassault nEUROn projects. Those systems dispense with time-consuming processes and costs to ensure certification for manned flight, and X-47B and nEUROn are autonomous rather than remotely piloted. The effectiveness of the X-47B’s autonomy has been highly visible with a perfect record for landing trials (and here) aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush in July 2013. The same precision was shown in airborne refuelling trials (and here) in 2015. In both instances, the X-47B was in charge—not a human.
UCAS operational costs are dramatically reduced as training for operators can be done largely in simulation, with the UCAS flying only when necessary. A recent analysis of UCAS vs manned aircraft for the USN by the Centre for New American Security (CNAS) suggested savings for UCAS over manned fighters of US$42.5 billion for 362 UCAS over 30 years, or potentially as much as US$131.5 billion over the same period for 191 UCAS compared to 463 manned platforms. So in an Australian context, money saved on life cycle costs could be reinvested back into further capability acquisition to allow a larger and more powerful future RAAF.