Economics of Speed

Just over forty-nine years ago, in October of 1967, William J. Knight flew the North American rocket-powered X-15 at a speed of Mach 6.72 [4,520 miles per hour (7,274 km/h)], to set the still-unbroken speed record for a manned aircraft.

The speed record for an unmanned aircraft was set by NASA’s X-43A at Mach 9.6 on November 16, 2004, at an altitude of 33,223 meters over the Pacific Ocean.

The top speed for a manned aircraft taking off on its own power belongs to the SR-71 Blackbird which established in July of 1976 a still-standing speed record of (2,193.2 mph; 3,529.6 km/h), approximately Mach 3.3. There are reports of faster speeds, but not under accepted standards for records.

None of these aircraft are known to be operational today, ostensibly because the first two were experimental research aircraft that served their purposes, and because it’s been stated that the SR-71’s reconnaissance objectives can now be achieved by satellite or UAV reconnaissance at a much lower cost. Of the 32 SR-71s built, twelve were lost to mechanical or other non-combat causes. Over 800 SAMs were fired at SR-71s, and none ever hit, but the operating cost of the SR-71 exceeded $85,000 per hour, and ran $300 million a year, essentially $10 million per operating aircraft per year.

When I left the Navy, the F-14 was the top fighter [at least Navy pilots thought so], but it was retired early, despite being not only faster and able to do more than the F-18, because it required more than twice as much maintenance and because of [disputed] claims that some of the missions it could handle were no longer necessary.

The fastest commercial aircraft was, of course, the Concorde with a top speed of Mach 2.04, and, like the SR-71, it was retired from service for economic reasons, because it never made a profit, and refitting costs would have made it even less profitable.

Economics also have impacted commercial airliners. Today, on major routes, it takes longer to fly point to point than it did fifty years ago. The 1960s Boeing 707 actually cruised at faster speeds (roughly 3% faster) than does the latest B-737-800. The reason is that that newer airliner use high-bypass jet engines that are currently much more fuel-efficient at slightly slower speeds, and since fuel costs range from 26-35% of operating costs, fuel efficiency is far more highly prized than speed.

The bottom line: For both the military and for commercial air travel, economics outweigh speed.

6 thoughts on “Economics of Speed”

  1. Bob Walters says:

    Except they don’t. Having a higher speed guarantees the ability to force a decision or deny an engagement in air combat, this is incredibly important. Now for transport you have a point.

    1. As a former Navy pilot I happen to agree with you, but that’s clearly not the way some military decision-makers have seen it, because, in fact, economics have trumped speed and other military advantages.

  2. Lydia says:

    In short: Follow the money if you want to know why certain decisions are made? I am certainly not growing less cynical myself …..

  3. Scott says:

    The Economics of speed is very apparent in the information world. Almost everything I do at my work is geared toward getting knowledge workers the information they need in a timely manner.

    Timely has become to mean we predict the future and prescribe solutions. Data science (and it’s grandfather, statistical analysis) is being applied to everything. Machine learning derives trends from unformatted lakes-and oceans-of data.

    New software projects used to take two years to implement. Our speed to market for a new app is down to two weeks (for a minimally viable product).

    As we move into virtual worlds, it is every more apparent that knowledge is power. Perhaps the economics of speed requires that the money be focused more on obtaining speed in the digital world rather than maintaining speed advantages in the physical world.

  4. darcherd says:

    Economics matters in combat as much as pure performance, or at least must be weighed in as a factor. If you can have [hypothetically] ten F14’s or fifteen F18’s for the same total cost of ownership, which is better? The answer, of depends on your overall strategy and the mission you intend to support.
    To cite a naval surface warfare with which I’m more familiar, during the cold war the difference in appearance between American and Soviet Russian warships was striking. The latter were bristling with guns and missiles on every available surface, while the American ships sported much fewer actual guns and missile launchers. The difference, as it was explained to me, came down to a tradeoff between economics and capability. American naval weapons systems represented major investments in targeting and guidance, i.e. they were significantly more accurate, and they also featured a great amount of below-decks ordnance storage, i.e. they could reload and fire many times in an engagement.
    The Soviet response, because they realized they could not match the investment in electronic and computer-based targeting and guidance, opted instead for a cheaper, more brute-force strategy, counting on being able to launch so much at their opponents at once that even the most sophisticated defensive system would be overwhelmed. But the additional tradeoff was that each above-deck weapons system meant less space and weight below decks for ordnance storage. Even with the Soviet’s willingness to cramp crew quarters much more than the Americans, the upshot was that the Soviet ships were only really able to get off one or two salvoes, and they hoped that would be enough.
    From the standpoint of the Americans, if they could survive those first couple of salvoes, their superior weapons systems and greater reload capacity would give them the edge in a naval encounter (admittedly, a big ‘if’).
    So which strategy was better? Both had tradeoffs, and required performance and economics to be factored in and the tradeoffs understood and accepted.
    So while from the standpoint of glory and bragging rights, the halt in advances of pure speed may be dispiriting, they are a recognition of the political and economic limitations required by the current environment.
    However, should be again find ourselves in a hot, shooting conflict between developed nations with sophisticated weapons, we might very well find that the need for superior speed and performance is once more a high priority.

  5. Alan Naylor says:

    It’s unfortunate that economics impact military spending so much. I understand that there’s only so many dollars to go around and we have to make the most of it, but a corporate mindset for military operations and activities is a doomed one. It’s already creeping through the Navy. A fine young sailor who worked for me got canned for not filling out paperwork right. It wasn’t maliciously done, he just didn’t think about it. He performed the work safely and quickly but they canned a 15 year sailor because he didn’t fill out the paperwork and was thus considered to be unsafe.

    The goals of government and the goals of companies are very much in opposition to one another. Especially when you consider the military’s goals. The military should not be approached with a corporate mindset.

    The notion of speed in economics has impacted me since I joined the civilian workforce as well. We don’t keep many parts on hand at the facility I work in, because of a variety of reasons. The suppliers say they can get us anything same day/next day. There’s a cost to keeping things in inventory. They don’t want to spend the money until they have to… Etc. etc. Which is all fine and dandy until a production line is down and there’s no parts to fix it. Every minute of down time is so many dollars lost. So in the end how much did you really save by not keeping a sensor or bearing in stock because you ‘knew’ a supplier could get it to you same day?

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