Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Real U.S. Stealth-Tech Advantage: Its Assembly Lines

Real U.S. Stealth-Tech Advantage: Its Assembly Lines: "

For more than 20 years, the U.S. Air Force had a world monopoly on radar-evading technology — and with it, a huge advantage over any rival. Several generations of stealth fighters and bombers, from the earliest F-117s to the 1990s-vintage B-2s and today’s F-22s, have helped win wars, take down regimes and exert U.S. influence across the globe.

Then something happened. In an eventful two years, the United States has apparently lost its stealth monopoly to Russia, China and several other countries that have already flown their own stealth-fighter prototypes — or might soon. U.S. stealth planes are still better and far more numerous than any other country’s, and will be for a long time. But they’re no longer alone.

The implications could be enormous, for the United States and the world.

Or not. There’s evidence that most countries are merely bluffing with their stealth-fighter plans. In that case, U.S. stealth dominance could continue … only slightly diminished.

The first challenger to U.S. radar-evading warplanes was the Russian T-50, debuting in January 2010. The Chinese J-20, pictured, followed 11 months later. Spurred on by the T-50 and J-20, several Asian nations announced their own stealth-fighter schemes. India signed on for a version of the T-50. Japan and South Korea began designing stealth warplanes of their own.

The stealth race shows no outward sign of slowing. Rumors abound of a second Chinese stealth jet that could begin testing any day now.

But it’s not clear how many of these new stealth fighters will ever enter full-rate production. Indeed, it’s possible some are not even meant for front-line service.

That’s the hidden irony of the stealth arms race. While it might appear that the United States has lost its lead in the design and manufacture of “invisible” warplanes, the escalating global demand for stealth could end up working in the United States’ favor, by creating a market for the latest fighters that didn’t exist before — and one only the United States can really afford to exploit.

The key is scale.

It’s one thing to design a viable stealth plane, and even to show off a prototype or two. It’s entirely another thing to mass-produce combat-ready stealth fighters at a price the world’s air forces can afford. “Talk is cheap,” my old boss (and Danger Room co-founder) Sharon Weinberger used to say. “Military aircraft are expensive.”

It’s possible only the United States has the industrial capacity and domestic market sufficient to make its stealth planes economical on the world market. That’s the whole rationale behind the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the fourth (but not last) U.S. stealth warplane.

The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines could buy as many as 3,000 F-35s over the next 30 years. No other country even possesses that many fighters, much less plans to replace them all with stealth models. “It [the F-35] is a versatile aircraft, less than half the total cost of the F-22, and can be produced in quantity with all the advantages produced by economies of scale,” former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said two years ago.

Gates was on to something (even if the JSF turned out to be not as cheap as he hoped). With development costs mostly paid for by Washington, and Lockheed’s investment protected by the promise of huge domestic orders, the F-35 is positioned to be the United States’ — and the world’s — first relatively affordable, exportable stealth fighter. A number of countries have already placed orders, and more should follow.

Some might question whether a plane priced at $100 million per copy before development and support expenses is truly economical. And they’re right to be skeptical. But China’s J-20 could end up costing even more than the F-35, if it enters full-scale production at all. Japan pays more than $100 million for each of its current, non-radar-evading F-2 warplanes — and would probably have to shell out double that per copy for its planned “ATD-X” stealth fighter.

Foreign governments are aware of the high cost of developing and buying homemade stealth fighters. And that’s why most of them probably don’t intend on following through with indigenous warplane programs. Instead, many countries are working on stealth technology as a political bargaining chip, and as practice for their aerospace industries. Their goal is to team up with other countries on stealth.

Take Japan, for example. No one seriously believes Tokyo is prepared to devote a full 5 percent of its annual defense budget to purchase a handful of homemade ATD-X stealth fighters. The Pentagon will probably end up spending just 3 percent of its budget for a proportionally much larger fleet of F-35s. Producing its own stealth fighters could bankrupt the Japanese military.

More likely, the Japanese government is budgeting a few hundred million dollars to refining basic stealth technology, with the real goal of proving to Lockheed that Japanese industry deserves to participate in the production of F-35s, if and when Tokyo formally decides to acquire the type. Same goes for South Korea, which could also acquire the F-35 and hopes to make parts for the jet. It’s worth keeping an eye on where these countries’ stealth components wind up. But neither Japan nor South Korea is about to build a fleet of rivals to stealthy U.S. warbirds.

Russia, for its part, may also be more of a maker of stealth parts than a stealth jets. Moscow perhaps always intended India to help pay for the stealth T-50 fighter’s development, as Russia probably couldn’t afford the T-50 all on its own.

That leaves China. While there is speculation that Beijing might try to sell radar-evading fighters to Pakistan, so far China is going it alone on stealth. Whether the Chinese can afford large numbers of stealth planes remains to be seen. Double-digit GDP growth can’t last forever.

Once the dilettantes are factored out, there are really only three countries making viable stealth fighters, and only two — the United States and China — capable of making them on their own. If there exists a market for 4,000 stealth warplanes over the next three decades, probably 3,500 will be U.S. models.

That’s not a monopoly, but it’s pretty close. The U.S. radar-evading advantage might not be as overwhelming as it once was, but it could still endure for decades — thanks mostly to the incredibly high cost of stealth.

Photo: Chinese Internet


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