Observations on Military Flying

It’s been almost fifty years since I stopped flying helicopters for the U.S. Navy, although I do maintain an interest in military aircraft. My first military trainer [in primary] was a T-34, not the turboprop variety later developed, but a pure piston-engine aircraft derived from the Beechcraft Bonanza, with a top speed of around 190 mph. The second was a T-28, with speeds and capabilities roughly equivalent to early 1940s Navy fighter planes, and was also the plane with which I made my first carrier landings in early 1967.

Now, since it’s been nearly fifty years since I last flew a military aircraft, I got to thinking. Fifty years before I first flew was in 1916, when all military aircraft were essentially low-powered, cloth-winged biplanes. Less than twenty-five years later, military aircraft were travelling three times as fast. And that progress continued. From WWII to the Vietnam War, fighter plane speeds increased by a factor of four.

And exactly what’s happened since then? Most top line fighter planes today have top speeds slightly less than the fastest F-4 of the 1970s, yet all of the current top-line fighters would take the F-4 to the cleaners, so to speak, because it turned out that speed was seldom ever used. Part of that lack of use was the fuel cost of speed. Full afterburner usage can drain a fighter’s tank in a matter of minutes, and enough fuel to keep the plane in the air longer would make it too heavy to take off [a slight over-simplification, but essentially true]. Maneuverability and weapons systems – and low radar profiles – have become the key to air superiority.

Unhappily all that technology doesn’t come cheap. In 2018 dollars, the flyaway cost of an F-4 would be roughly $19 million. An F-35 comes in at $80-$90 million, four times as much, and with the U.S. projected to buy 2,443 aircraft, the current cost estimate is an estimated US$323 billion. But then, in 2018 dollars, the roughly 4,000 F-4s procured by U.S. military forces [my estimate out of the roughly 5,200 built] cost around $80 billion in 2018 dollars. While we’re paying four times as much for a little more than half as many aircraft, an original F-4 can’t stand against fourth and fifth generation fighters – and if we built “new” F-4s with modern avionics and weapons, I have the feeling that they wouldn’t be all that much cheaper… and they’d likely cost more to operate and wouldn’t have as much range… and we’d likely lose more pilots.

What it all seems to mean is that air combat isn’t ever going to be any “faster” than it was 50 years ago, but it’s definitely more complex and more expensive and likely to keep getting more so… yet technology makes most other things cheaper. And that suggests that it’s getting more and more expensive to destroy things than to build them. But I don’t see much progress in realizing just how much more it’s costing to build more and more sophisticated systems of destruction as we engage in what might be called the Red Queen’s arms race.

5 thoughts on “Observations on Military Flying”

  1. Derek says:

    Along these lines, I recall the Air Force recently researching the viability of ‘light attack’ aircraft due to the price of building and maintaining modern fighters. It is more cost effective to send a A-29 Super Tucano to strafe a group of insurgents rather than sending an F-35.

    I’m not sure where they currently are on looking into that, but it was an interesting article.

  2. Lourain says:

    There are definitely times when agility trumps speed.
    My father was a Navy pilot who flew helicopters during the Korean War. One time he played “catch me if you can” with a pair of MIGs. Every time a MIG would start a strafing run Dad would duck around four story building. The MIGs finally ran low on fuel, and left.

  3. Wine Guy says:

    The high cost and complexity of aircraft cause several problems for the US:
    1. it limits the number of aircraft available which is problematic since the US has multiple theaters to protect its interests.
    2. limits the amount of money it has to spend on other big ticket items.
    3. the amount of Class 3,4,5, and 9 items they require are a major logistical headache.
    4. repair of even somewhat trivial items causes major down time and often mandates moving the aircraft back to a depot rather than a repair in place.

  4. How likely is it that air warfare will trend to large numbers of relatively cheap drones controlled by humans in safer locations.

    1. In terms of reconnaissance, highly likely. In terms of warfare, I have my doubts, simply because I suspect jamming methods will eliminate “cheap” drones, which will then require manned aircraft, at least as onsite control centers, or very expensive drones, or more expensive high tech aircraft. But that’s my off-the-top opinion.

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