World Naval Developments: What Aircraft Really Cost

By Norman Friedman, Author, The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems

There may not be enough money, however, to buy both F-22s and the Air Force's version of the JSF. Too, there must be fear that the F-22 program, which already has experienced large cost overruns in the R&D stage, will continue to do so in the production stage.

As for the B-2, it turns out that critics who charged that each airplane cost $1 billion were wrong; each costs well more than $2 billion. To put that in perspective, a Seawolf (SSN-21)-class nuclear-powered attack submarine was considered grossly overpriced at about $1.6 billion. The entire Cold War program of 30 Seawolf s would have cost little more than the fleet of 20 B-2s. Similarly, three B-2s cost about as much as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier; five probably would buy the ship and all her aircraft. Defenders of the B-2 program will point out that much of the cost actually reflects R&D and tooling, which would not change whether the total program ran to 20 or to 100 aircraft. The marginal cost of building a single B-2 is often given as something like half a billion dollars. In that case another 80 B-2s would cost $40 billion , and the net cost of an F-22 in a 100-plane production run would be something like $800 million—still about as much as an Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class destroyer.

Both the F-22 and the B-2, moreover, reflect Cold War reasoning. The F-22, conceived in the 1980s, was justified by the assumption that the Soviets would soon field successors to the MiG-29 and Su-27. It seemed obvious that virtually any supersonic-cruise stealthy fighter (like an F-22) would devastate previous-generation aircraft, which would be unable to engage it using long-range missiles because they would be unable to detect it. Supersonic cruise would offer such mobility that the fighter would be able to control vast volumes of sky, although it might be hampered by its limited missile load.

It also must have seemed likely that it would enjoy a long production run with accompanying reductions in unit cost. Now the only hope for that is foreign sales—which, in a very uncertain world, would seem to void the argument that its superiority will be decisive. As it happened, the F-22 emerged just as defense spending began going down again. Since the program has been run on a cost-plus basis, it has absorbed the increased overheads needed to keep its builders alive in lean times. The apparently absurd unit cost, then, may reflect an intelligent industrial policy. It may be that any advanced airplane will cost something like an F-22, just as any submarine, no matter how intelligently designed, may cost about as much as a Seawolf .

The high unit cost often is justified on the grounds that stealth makes the airplane far more survivable in combat than its predecessors. Unfortunately, stealth does not make it safer to fly. At least in the case of the B-2 and the F-117, the demands of stealth make the airplane inherently less flyable; they depend on computer-driven fly-by-wire system; and no such system has proved altogether foolproof.

Cold War analysis concentrated on a single very hot war against the Soviets, if indeed any war came. As long as the airplanes did their jobs for a week or a month, they would have more than paid their way. Long-term accident attrition was unlikely to be a major factor in that scenario, but things have changed. A succession of crises will demand frequent operations, and that should increase demand for spare parts. The result likely will be a higher cost than was estimated during the Cold War.

We must also expect saboteur attacks on any air bases we use in the Third World, just as we faced them in Vietnam. Stealth is irrelevant in such an attack. If that seems unlikely, perhaps the reader should reflect on the destruction of the U.S. military housing complex in Saudi Arabia last year.

With the demise of any Russian program to replace the existing MiGs and Sukhois, the proper measure of stealth is probably the ability to overcome modern air defenses, which the the Russians are beginning to export. This approach was, after all, the key consideration in the abortive Navy A-12 program, which was canceled because of much lower cost overruns than the F-22 has experienced. Such considerations suggest that the JSF, if cost discipline can be exerted, is a better bet than the F-22, and even that the F-22 program itself may no longer make much strategic sense. If a stealthier Air Force fighter is needed, an upgrade of the existing F-15 may be a more reasonable proposition than the F-22, on something like the same basis on which the F/A-18E/F was derived from the F/A-18C/D.

About the same time the F-22 was rolled out, the Air Force began to advertise the concept of an air task force that could fly out instantly to stop an advancing enemy army. Computer simulations demonstrated that small numbers of heavy bombers could destroy large numbers of advancing tanks using the new generation of brilliant antitank weapons, such as the acoustically guided BAT. The new tactical concept is certainly consistent with the need to save money. Aircraft based in the United States could do the job of hundreds of thousands of ground troops, without incurring the messy and slow logistics of transporting the troops and their mountains of equipment.

It may well be that the new munitions work as advertised. It may also be that past problems in vectoring aircraft to very distant moving targets, and in coordinating their attacks, have been solved by computer networking and by the tactical use of satellite assets under all weather conditions. Similarly, it may be that, faced with the U.S. air task force, enemies will be cooperative enough to bunch their armor into convenient targets.

A fly is still struggling in this ointment, however—the airplanes probably will need aerial refueling to reach their targets, and the tankers need bases of their own. In an ideal world, governments would line up for the honor of supporting a righteous U.S. war effort by tanker basing. Surely, then, the immense scale of European support for such U.S. initiatives as the 1986 Libyan raid and the crusade in Vietnam demonstrates conclusively that we always will enjoy such facilities.

That is entirely apart from questions of the weather (can we be so sure of what we are seeing from space when the sensor is a radar?); of terrain (how well can we see tanks moving through forest or jungle?); and of whether tanks will constitute the ground threat. There is a reason for the old adage that only troops can hold ground, and it may still be valid, despite radical advances in weapon accuracy and lethality.

What are we to do, then? The Air Force concept is only one of several that attempt to maintain U.S. military effectiveness despite drastic losses of funding. The hope eternal is that longrange fire, directed either by satellites, other remote platforms, or small teams on the ground, can make up for the numbers of troops we can no longer expect to deploy, or at least cannot deploy quickly. It may be that soldiers are needed to hold ground only because sensors are costly, so that only large numbers of troops can actually see and counter enemy troops trying to infiltrate. If that is the case, then perhaps some future sort of sensor or observer, calling down extremely accurate fire, may suffice. Of course, such a future would require the continuous presence of the fire-direction platform(s) and vast amounts of ammunition in case the targets do not oblige us by bunching up.

The most obvious possibility is that we are gaining an increased ability to support local forces under attack, but that we are losing our ability to inject large stiffening forces of our own; that we are improving our hit-and-run capability (which may often be good enough), but that we cannot maintain much of a capacity for sustained combat. Such a trend would seem appropriate to the increasing pressure to reduce the standard of U.S. force posture from two major regional conflicts to one.

Arms Sales—Pros and Cons

At the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Show late in March, several manufacturers who had offered undersea surveillance systems for export last year no longer had them on display. They had discovered that the Department of Defense did not want foreign powers to buy systems that might put U.S. submariners at risk. Much the same seemed to be true of radars adapted to detecting low radar cross-section targets. In this case, the issue was the viability of stealthy U.S. aircraft and missiles. In both cases, the underlying assumption was that the best of the technologies were U.S. monopolies.

It is no longer clear, however, that the technologies in question are either U.S. monopolies or require the use of specifically military equipment. In addition, the Russians developed their own equivalents of the U.S. systems during the Cold War, and they are unlikely to pay much attention to U.S.-sponsored export limitations.

By now the basic concept of the U.S. Navy's Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) is well known. Strings of hydrophones were laid in the sea, preferably at the depth of the deep sound channel. Submarines were detected using narrowband frequency analysis—the same low-frequency acquisition and ranging processors common in modern sonobuoys. There is now little or no control over the sale of such processors, which the Russians also developed. Clearly, there are important technical problems to overcome in laying deep hydrophones, and in connecting them to a beach, but it seems unlikely that solutions achieved in the early 1950s are still the monopoly of the U.S. government.

For that matter, the sort of acoustic analysis pioneered by SOSUS is now very common in the civilian world; it is the basis of many digital sound devices, such as speech recognizers. Extremely powerful digital signal processors are available on the civilian market.

As it happens, the Soviets were developing ocean surveillance systems as the Cold War ended and their military R&D system began to collapse. They are now advertising the fruit of that investment, a system called Searchlight, which, unlike SOSUS, seems to rely heavily on bistatics; range is probably a few hundred kilometers rather than the sort of oceanic range regularly credited to SOSUS during the Cold War.

If there is actually a lucrative world market for undersea surveillance systems, it seems likely that companies in countries outside U.S. control can assemble the elements of such systems. They may not do as well as a U.S. company that worked on SOSUS for decades, but they may do well enough. As it is, only Diagnostic Retrieval Systems' short-range system is available for export from the United States, and that is because it lacks SOSUS-like potential; it does, however, have a far better chance of detecting inshore intruders than does any SOSUS clone.

In the short term, unrestricted Russian arms sales may well cause problems: many people buy weapons because they expect to fight, and better weapons give them a better chance of success. On the other hand, no local conflict fought with the weapons involved is likely to destroy the world. If the restrictions we try to impose help push the Russians back into the sort of paranoid mind set characteristic of the Cold War, then we may wish that we were faced with only the most local of problems.


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