Warplanes: The Last Generation


February 14, 2008: While Israel is eager to get the new U.S. F-35 fighter-bomber, they also see that aircraft as the last manned aircraft they will buy. This is an attitude shared by many aircraft designers, and even many air force commanders. Partly, this attitude comes from the lead Israel has taken in UAV development. Although the U.S. got into this field back in the 1950s, Israeli firms embraced the concept more enthusiastically when they began work in the 1970s. It was the success of Israeli UAVs that finally got U.S. manufacturers to make their designs practical, reliable and attractive to military users. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has been revolutionized by the presence of thousands of UAVs, helping everyone from platoon commanders, up to the most senior generals, fight more effectively.

Israeli UAVs are noted for their reliability and low operating cost. The Israelis have gotten the per-hour operating cost of a Predator size UAV down to about a thousand dollars an hour. That's less than a fifth of what it would cost to have a piloted jet do the recon work.

The F-35 will be in use for over 20 years, and prototypes of robotic replacements are already flying in the United States. Israel wants to develop designs, software and control systems for fighter and bomber UAVs, and then partner with American or European manufacturers to actually build the pilotless aircraft that will replace the F-35, sometimes in the 2030s. These will use many of the expensive engine and electronic components currently found in top-line warplanes, and Israel is too small to sustain the production of much of this stuff.

The combat USVs would arrive about a century after the first major revolution in military aircraft design. This was when the fabric covered bi-planes that dominated World War I, were replaced by all-metal monoplane designs. Less than a decade later, those revolutionary looking (and performing) aircraft were replaced by the first jet fighters. The "first generation" jet fighters were those produced during World War II and through the late 1940s. The best examples of these are the U.S. F-86 and the Russian MiG-15. The second generation got going in the early 1950s, and produced aircraft like the U.S. F-104 and the Russian MiG-21. The third generation followed within a decade, producing the U.S. F-4 and the Russian MiG-23. The fourth generation arrived in the 1970s and 80s with the F-15, F-16, F-18, Russian MiG-29, Su-27 and French Mirage-2000. The fifth generation includes the F-22, F-35, and whatever the Russians come up with. The Eurofighter and Rafael are often called Generation 4.5. Russian fifth generation fighter developments were halted when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Actually, all development work on new fighters, by everyone, slowed down in the 1990s. But work on the F-22, F-35, Eurofighter and Rafael continued, and those aircraft became, in roughly that order, the most advanced fighter aircraft available today. This fifth generation may come to be called the "last generation," after they are replaced by the second generation of pilotless combat aircraft (counting armed Predators and the like as the first).




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