Drones and the US Air Force

Drones and the US Air Force

Schneier on Security [[{„value“:“

Fascinating analysis of the use of drones on a modern battlefield—that is, Ukraine—and the inability of the US Air Force to react to this change.

The F-35A certainly remains an important platform for high-intensity conventional warfare. But the Air Force is planning to buy 1,763 of the aircraft, which will remain in service through the year 2070. These jets, which are wholly unsuited for countering proliferated low-cost enemy drones in the air littoral, present enormous opportunity costs for the service as a whole. In a set of comments posted on LinkedIn last month, defense analyst T.X. Hammes estimated the following. The delivered cost of a single F-35A is around $130 million, but buying and operating that plane throughout its lifecycle will cost at least $460 million. He estimated that a single Chinese Sunflower suicide drone costs about $30,000—so you could purchase 16,000 Sunflowers for the cost of one F-35A. And since the full mission capable rate of the F-35A has hovered around 50 percent in recent years, you need two to ensure that all missions can be completed—for an opportunity cost of 32,000 Sunflowers. As Hammes concluded, “Which do you think creates more problems for air defense?”

Ironically, the first service to respond decisively to the new contestation of the air littoral has been the U.S. Army. Its soldiers are directly threatened by lethal drones, as the Tower 22 attack demonstrated all too clearly. Quite unexpectedly, last month the Army cancelled its future reconnaissance helicopter ­ which has already cost the service $2 billion—because fielding a costly manned reconnaissance aircraft no longer makes sense. Today, the same mission can be performed by far less expensive drones—without putting any pilots at risk. The Army also decided to retire its aging Shadow and Raven legacy drones, whose declining survivability and capabilities have rendered them obsolete, and announced a new rapid buy of 600 Coyote counter-drone drones in order to help protect its troops.

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