Commoditising High Cost Technology

In 1963 the Australian Government ordered the F111 at the then astronomical cost of $112 million with the final cost a decade later being 324 million. It has been the best bang for the buck purchase Australian has made in defence. Like all good deterrents it will be retired without being used in anger.

The JSF will replace the F18/F111 in Australia’s armoury and is facing potential cost increases from about $47 million USD per unit to $60 million. We will face a capability gap with the early retirement of the F111, which has led some to promote the F22 over the JSF. We are not the only ones in this position, the USMC is running up airframe hours on their aircraft in Iraq and have no replacement until the JSF comes on-line.

Then there are those, like the Cato Institute, who advocate the JSF being the last manned aircraft and instead focusing on cheaper alternatives like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles [UAVs]. But the American experience with UAVs is that they are more expensive than manned ones to operate. They carry the same infrastructure and maintenance costs – but with added labor costs.

Where a pilot comes back from a mission, rolls the manned-aircraft into a hanger, eats dinner and goes to bed; with a UAV the operators run in three shifts to keep the UAV in the air longer. Labor and maintenance costs make up a large chunk of the defence budget anyway and a UAV adds to that.

Big money, big tech … it is going to be an expensive exercise no matter what.

And then you see really cool technology like this.

screenshot

A pretty neat little citizen UAV flying over a local golf course in Canada. We commoditise technology so quickly now it removes the nation-state’s traditional advantage of capital intensive technologies – especially in military areas. The 4th Edition of the Fundamentals of Australian Aerospace Power notes;

The potential for non-state actors to utilise aerospace assets in a provocative but effective military manner in the future was demonstrated by two associated events in the past.

The first was the flight of an Australian UAV across the Atlantic in 1998. The UAV … was launched from a roof rack in Canada, and landed at its programmed site on the Benbecula Range in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. The crossing involved flying a distance of 3270 kilometres in a time of 26 hours and 45 minutes.

Satellite imagery for the period of the flight indicated that [it] was in moderate to heavy rain for 14-18 hours, or well over half the entire flight. In undertaking its mission, [it] used only six litres of fuel.

Some of the significant military factors of this achievement were the austere launch platform, the accuracy achieved in reaching the target landing site, and the fact that the aircraft had a five kilogram payload.


Commercial satellites are coming down in cost too, to the ten million dollars mark – well within the range of wealthy individuals and non-state actors.

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Jc
Jc
15 years ago

As someone once wrote. The new cockpit will require a pilot and a dog. The dog is there to bite the pilot of he touches anything.

UAV’s are the way foward seeing we have develpoed a low tolerance for military deaths in combat.

cam
cam
15 years ago

JC, Air Force deaths are few and far between anyway. Air superiority is usually decided in the first 24 hours and most of the destruction occurs on the ground, not in the air.

taust
taust
15 years ago

When two technically equal powers fight an air battle the casualties can be as high as any other form of warfare. Probably the last time this occured was in the Korean war.

cam
cam
15 years ago

Taust, US Air Force losses in Korea were 1,180 killed. It is surprising how little damage was done in air to air combat prior to precision weaponry like air to air missiles. The US didn’t have the opportunity of total war in Korea either, and couldn’t do ground strikes on the bases in China.

Robert Merkel
15 years ago

Um, yes, for ground reconnaisance any idiot can build or buy a UAV.

Building something that can accurately destroy ground targets from the air, or, even harder, shoot down another aircraft, is much tougher. So is building a missile guidance unit for an anti-aircraft missile.

States are not likely to lose air superiority over non-state actors any time soon.

As for private satellites, governments take a rather keen interest in what private companies launch into space.

On the topic of what state militaries can do with UAVs, there seems to me to be a lack of thought put in to how to use them effectively – to a large extent, they’re building unmanned versions of the same Rolls-Royces they build for crewed aircraft. If you build’em cheap and simple, it doesn’t matter if half a dozen get shot down if you’re churning the things out on a production line for the price of a Barina.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Like V1s and V2s – though I guess V2s cost a lot more than a Barina!

Robert Merkel
15 years ago

Precisely, though the V2 was not good value – it cost about the same to build as a four-engine bomber and could only be used once.

The V1, by contrast, *was* very good value, but too inaccurate with the technology of the time. But these days, there’s absolutely no reason why a V1 couldn’t be as accurate as a Tomahawk missile with the addition of $500 worth of GPS and controller.

taust
taust
15 years ago

cam;
presumably air war between ‘equal’ opponents would include ground to air as well as just air to air.

The UK airforce were forced to stop low level air strikes in the Gulf war by ground based fire and that was not exactly war between equals.

The Falklands War might be the most equal of posr WW2 wars and it took longer than 24 hrs to gain air superiority.