As the discussion in Washington turns at least semi-serious about deficit and debt reduction, an interesting story about the Pentagon's F-35 story emerged this week. The program may have to be cut or curtailed if defense spending takes a hit, which it almost certainly will. This presents defense planners with what may turn out to be a historical dilemma. Are we at the point in human history where the manned fighter aircraft is on the downward arc of its zenith? The answer is probably yes, but even if it's not, you can see the end from here.
The F-35 is a big-dollar program ($382 billion) propelled by more lobbying money this year than most of us will make in a lifetime. Ignoring the politics, what about the flying part? Do the services need a state-of-the-art, radar-evading fighter to protect against what threat? Or are drones coming along fast enough to take up the slack?
Just to put the F-35 program in chronological context, the F-16 has been in production for 32 years, the F-18 for 27; both are still mainstays in the U.S. inventory. Although they've been improved and upgraded, they're built on old foundations by aerospace standards. They'll have to be replaced eventually with something and that something might not have a guy (or woman) in it.
One of the F-35 stories I saw had a simple yes/no poll to cut it or keep it. I voted to keep it, but I was in the 30 percent minority. What I'd really like see is for the program to be scaled back, but that raises unit costs and makes the program less efficient than it already is.
It's easy to just click a choice and move on to the next page, but not so easy to make a decision whose consequences might not become obvious for a decade or longer. I really don't envy Bob Gates his job.
Neat airplane, though, even if it is late and over budget.