Boeing director of international market development Richard McCrary delivered a thought-provoking paper to last week's Defence IQ Fighter Conference in London. Coming from a philosophy graduate and SR-71 pilot who led Boeing's campaign to sell the Super Hornet to Australia, it's worth attention.
McCrary advanced a concept that was new to me: the idea of a "half-life of technology":
The point at which break-through characteristics that can have a disruptive effect and provide a dominant capability are effectively countered, emulated, exploited and/or copied; thus devolving to a desirable design characteristic, a necessary but insufficient design element. Jet engines, swept wings and supersonic speed have all passed through this phase, McCrary notes. There is also the risk that the high cost of making new technology work will result in a disruptive technology that is not fielded in large enough numbers to be dominant -- where McCrary draws a comparison between the Me262 and F-22.
"We spent the Russians into the dirt," McCrary says, but adds that "we are on the same trajectory ourselves". Out of almost 2400 stealth aircraft planned in 1980s programs, the US procured 267.
The rising cost of combat aircraft, too, could be putting allies out of the airpower business, McCrary suggests. If the number of aircraft that can be afforded don't allow for the basics of capability -- for instance, the ability to sustain a homeland defense QRA and provide aircraft to a coalition at the same time.
The alternative approach is evolutionary, McCrary suggests, but with a twist -- the parallel development of a new platform that can exploit the investment in evolved systems.
He gave two examples: Sukhoi, evolving the T-10B design into the Su-35S while working on the T-50 next-generation platform, and Boeing, with the "international roadmap" version in parallel with one of the strange tailless beasts that have been appearing on Boeing charts for about a year.
First, I am beginning to see outlines of a strategy that reflects the possibility that the US Navy will forgo the F-35C (and possibly the B) in favor of an improved Super Hornet. The next step would be to pursue the next manned aircraft -- quite possibly with something that, initially, shares electronics and propulsion with the F/A-18. That was basically how the Super Hornet itself started.
Second, taking off from McCrary's "necessary but not sufficient" comment, it's possible to see the dynamic that has driven increasing size, complexity and cost over decades. Jet propulsion, radar and guided missiles, supersonic speed, agility and now stealth all have seen fighter size and power ratcheted upwards. However, that's not a process that can continue indefinitely. Reining in requirements is one answer.
However, another -- fleet-wide -- solution could be glimpsed in a few comments at the conference. As Brig Gen Silvano Frigerio of Italy pointed out, a Libya-style operation does not demand high-end fighters -- and the operating cost of those aircraft can make a long campaign hugely burdensome.
RUAG briefed on its plans to modernize F-5s for roles such as homeland defense and lead-in training. And McCrary himself commented that the Gripen is "the last affordable modern fighter" -- while adding that in his view the larger NG was a mistake, "pushing them out of that market sector".
Maybe mixed fleets -- and mixed coalition forces -- are the answer.