The End of Fighters?
By David Hare
The people of Switzerland recently voted against buying new fighter planes for their air force on the grounds of cost. To put this into context, a country ranked 20th in the world in terms of gross domestic product (it sits between Saudi Arabia and Iran) said no to a small fleet of one of the cheapest fighter aircraft, Saab’s Gripen.
The twenty two Gripen E/Fs would have replaced Switzerland’s geriatric F-5E fleet and eventually its F/A-18C/Ds. Though the referendum result was only won by a narrow margin it leads to the question, could this be the start of a trend? Have high performance manned fighters priced themselves out of the future?
In the 1940s-50s the RAF operated around 60 Gloster Meteor squadrons (even Belgium ordered 355 aircraft), and Britain’s total order (including FAA aircraft) surpassed 2700 aircraft. Today the RAF has five Typhoon squadrons, from around 2020 (when the Tranche 1 aircraft will be retired) it will have 107 Typhoons. Best not to think about the estimated £37 billion it will have cost the UK taxpayer by the time it retires. A comparison between the US F-86 and the later F-22 show an even more extreme example of the reduction in fighter fleet sizes. The size of fighter forces has declined for most nations since the 1950s. What will happen at the end of the next generation cycle in forty years time? In terms of development, Europe has no next generation fighter planned, the US has nothing firm beyond the F-35 (which is leaving a bad taste in the mouth of US procurement bodies, if you can forgive this rather weird imagery), and the Navy’s F/A-XX is far from definite. Considering that fighters take around thirty years from concept to operational readiness it appears that fighters are on the way out. So what of the PAK FA, J-20 and J-31? Do they not prove an international desire for this most high prestige of weapon’s platform? It could be argued that these aircraft represent a rather conservative response to the US so-called ‘5th Generation’ force, and instead point to a wish to continue a slow and careful arms (and technology) race between nations with no real wish for ‘peer’ war.
Time will tell if the referendum will lead to Switzerland abandoning the fighter role (as New Zealand did in 2001), and if it is a significant moment in a trend that could see small and medium-size air forces killing their most glamorous types.
New Zealand dropped their combat aircraft about 15 years ago. I think for small nations under no major threat or who take no major combat roles in world affairs it makes sense. In Switzerland’s case they haven’t probably needed to intercept any aircraft since WW2 when German and Allied bombers/fighters would stray across the border. For the majority though 4th gen fighters will be the mainstay for a long time to come (and cheaper Eastern alternatives to US fifth gen). Many nations are tied to the JSF so it will be interesting to see how it all turns out. Interestingly the USAF still uses the U-2 as it is cheaper to operate than the current long range drones!
By the time we get to 7th-gen fighters, major powers will be fielding total aircraft numbers in the single digits.
8th gen, we’ll just have one. It will be entirely invisible and shoot petawatt gamma ray lasers out of its butt, but will be grounded 97% of the time due to issues with the headrest and surround-sound system.
A huge arms race will start after headlines proclaim “Chinese begin work on second fighter!”