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The procurement system for the military has been a disaster since at least the 1960s, with smaller number of contractors building planes, ships, and other large systems. They’re overloaded by demand, quality control is awful, and the whole procurement line is rife with fraud and abuse. Case in point: the F-35, which went into production before it was even out of testing, but is still a piece of gosu. That’s a hell of a way to insulate yourself from the reality of failure, and a surefire way to make sure you get a steady influx of sweet, sweet taxpayer money. To quote Dick Jones from Robocop,

“I had a guaranteed military sale with ED-209. Renovation programs. Spare parts for 20 years…Who cares if it worked or not!?!”

This is made worse by the “white scarf brigade” — the collection of brass that came out of the aristocratic world of the pilot or aviator corps of the Air Force and Navy. These last century relics favor the man in machine paradigm of 20th Century aerial warfare, to the exclusion of good tactical and financial sense. The Navy, similarly, wanted to stick the amazing X-47 unmanned combat vehicle that recently managed to make several carrier landings (but blew one landing, leading to…) in a museum, instead of continuing to develop these aircraft, which are much cheaper, more maneuverable, and often more adaptable than a billion dollar turd like the F-35. (To be fair, the development of the X-47 is also nearing a billion bucks, but the unit cost would be much lower, but still not as low as the $16 million/unit cost of the MQ-9 Reaper. The F-22, by comparison, is $150 million or so a unit.)

The WSB response is to tout the impending incredible kill ratio of fifth generation fighters like the F-22. But there’s a wee problem with this argument for expensive, overly-complicated weapons systems like the F-22 and F-35…the Brookings Institute was touting a group of British students that managed to design and build a military style drone that was faster and more maneuverable than the military options with off the shelf parts for a very small fraction the cost of an MQ-9. (Having trouble finding and recovering the link…) When the opposition can build 100 drone to your one F-22, the kill ratio isn’t quite as important. Eventually, numbers will win out.

The lower cost per unit means even the shoddy quality control of the awful US military contractors wouldn’t have the impact it does on the ludicrously expensive aircraft in development. Can you get the thing up and flying? Can you get it to the target? Guess what..? The aircraft is a weapon in and of itself. Out of munitions? Ram the opposition with your UCAV — it’s still a tenth the cost and can be replaced much, much faster than the 5th gen fighters. They don’t require as much flight training (and are usually flown by non-coms — the real issue here; flying is a gentleman’s pastime!), and you can use them to the maximum of their flight characteristics without worrying if the pilot can handle the G-forces. they don’t require the maintenance cost and time because they’re simpler machines.

The future — and the smaller militaries of the industrialized world seem to realize this — is in drone-based aerial warfare. Unless the military is purged (yes, I realize the implications of the word) of the old-school grayhairs running the services, and fiscal sanity muscled into the procurement chain for the military, the United States is destined to find themselves fighting expensive 21st Century wars with 20th Century tactics and technology.