The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be ridiculously expensive, horribly late, and perhaps not all it was cracked up to be. But according to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, it has one truly distinguishing feature: It’s probably the last manned fighter aircraft the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps will ever buy.
In remarks made at a conference held just outside Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, according to U.S. Naval Institute News, Mabus said, “As good as it is, and as much as we need it and look forward to having it in the fleet for many years, the F-35 should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.”
Mabus indicated the military is increasingly moving toward drones. “Unmanned systems, particularly autonomous ones, have to be the new normal in ever-increasing areas,” Mabus said.
The disappointing F-35 has cost the federal government some $400 billion to date – about $170 billion more than was forecast. It has failed to meet multiple performance standards specified by the different branches of the U.S. military. A highly critical report from the Department of Defense’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation last month included a laundry list of problems, including engine fires and computer malfunctions.
The delayed deployment of the F-35 has left the 187 F-22s currently in the U.S. military’s inventory as the only currently available fifth generation jet fighters in the world.
The F-22 provides the U.S. military with air superiority over practically every other fighter plane on the planet. However, the F-22, itself a problematic piece of equipment that Congress stopped funding in 2009, is operationally inferior to the Russian T-50, which is reportedly going into regular production as soon as next year.
If Mabus is correct, and the move away from manned combat aircraft is imminent, the effect on the military contracting industry will likely be enormous. The U.S. has spent more on the F-35 alone than the entire GDP of all but about 30 countries in the world.
Drone production will undoubtedly take up a lot of the slack. However, without the necessity of carrying and protecting a human pilot, drones will be cheaper to produce and, at least potentially, less profitable for the companies that produce aircraft for the U.S. military.
Mabus had at least a little good news for the defense industry on Wednesday. The Navy, he said, is creating a new senior position for an official who will be in charge of coordinating its unmanned combat capabilities.
No word on how much money the new department will have to spend.