Reducing the cost of military aircraft: The 7 golden rules


Military aircraft take too long to develop, cost too much to manufacture and are consequently available to air arms in insufficiently small numbers. Here’s how to avoid the current mess.

1. Prioritise development

For a frontline aircraft, here is the order of priority:

Sensors/software: average development time 18 years to maturity

New guided munitions/development/integration: average development time 17 years to maturity

Engines: average development time 15 years to maturity

Airframe: average development time 10 years to maturity

Strangely, the reality is almost the opposite with an aircraft starting life in the wind tunnel, despite aerodynamics being the most predictable facet of modern aircraft development.

2. At least two of the following components must be already available off-the-shelf:  sensors/engines/airframe (note that former two can be replaced in upgrades). 

3. Invest a large amount in a short development time. However terrifying this figure may be, it is guaranteed to be less than the 25 years it currently takes a frontline aircraft to go from concept to operational service. 10 years is not unreasonable. Do not let the requirement be altered during development. 

4. Three simple metrics should dominate the design process: power-to-weight/reliability/range, however wonderful the weapons systems promise to be they will benefit from these inherent advantages.

5. Plan who will pay for upgrades in the future. 

6. Small factories (of the lowest possible tech) close to all component assemblies (to make this work it must be made clear that the cost savings outweigh the political advantages of multi-state collaboration).

7. The A variant will have insufficient fuel, electrical and processing power for upgrade, this is normal, but plan how it will be rectified in the B or C model.


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  1. Jim Smith

    Number 4: Range should be linked to the intended mission performance. Otherwise mision capability might get traded off against ferry range.

    Thrust-Weight ratio might not always be the best point-performance metric. Good for interceptors and air-defence. Payload range (and perhaps signature) likely to be key for strike aircraft.

    But strongly support the general point that robustly assessed, appropriate, Key Performance Parameters should be set and adhered to through development.

    • Ron Smith

      As per an earlier discussion I was involved in: a few well-chosen KPPs are good, but beware of unintended consequences.

      As I recall, Congress set required weight, cost and performance limits for the Comanche program. This removed most, if not all, of the available design freedoms. To my mind, it more or less implied that Congress knew more about how to design a helicopter at a given level of technology, than did Boeing and Sikorsky. Sank the program without trace!

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