As the pace of political and technological change intensifies, air power becomes ever more important to the U.S. armed forces.
This is clearly illustrated by the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. These guerilla wars have driven rapid development and deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for vital surveillance, threat-assessment and targeting tasks to make life less dangerous for U.S. soldiers.
UAVs are assuming great importance in the arsenal of aviation weapons that the U.S. forces can deploy and will become even more important in years to come. The first-ever U.S. Air Force attack squadron composed entirely of UAVs will deploy later this year to Iraq, with MQ-9 Reapers.
But, important as UAVs are becoming, U.S. forces will continue to need piloted aircraft. Transport, bomber, fighter and tanker aircraft will continue to be crewed for the conceivable future.
So will helicopters, though vertical-takeoff drones are now beginning to see use by the Navy and experiments continue with a full-size unmanned helicopter for military use. Nobody is suggesting there shouldn?t be flight crews on the new VH-71 United States Presidential helicopters now being built.
The U.S. Navy plans to use the Boeing X-45C as an unmanned strike aircraft. But when, eventually, the Air Force seeks to augment its strategic bomber force -- the aircraft would enter service no earlier than 2018 -- it will probably want its new bomber to be optionally manned.
That is, the Air Force wants to be able to ensure human crews are onboard the aircraft for at least part of any mission, if necessary.
There are arguments for and against operating unmanned fighter aircraft, said Wayne Plucker, senior aerospace and defense industry analyst for consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.
One minus is that ?you?re not going to have a guy in the cockpit making decisions,? who can react instantly to suddenly changing threats or mission priorities, said Plucker.
On the plus side, without the need to limit the aircraft?s performance capabilities to the G-force limits the human body can tolerate, it can be made more maneuverable.
However, ?with today?s weaponry, maneuver is not as critical as it once was," said Plucker. "The ability to launch and control radar-guided and -- to a lesser extent ? heat-seeking missiles at the right time is.?
Several important new aircraft types are entering service with the U.S. forces -- or soon will. Ultimately, unmanned versions of these aircraft probably will be developed. But the aircraft were initially designed to have pilots and will be flying manned for many years.
They include the U.S. Marine Corps? and Air Force?s V-22 Osprey tilt-wing aircraft; the F-22A Raptor air superiority fighter; and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which will appear in three widely different versions.
Designed as a strike aircraft with unprecedented ability to deliver precision-guided ground-attack munitions, the F-35 will initially be available as a conventional-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, to be operated in large numbers by the Air Force.
A carrier-borne version will be built for the Navy. Additionally, a short-takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version will be built for the Marine Corps and probably also for the Royal Air Force and other customers.
The F-35 will probably become one of the most-produced attack aircraft of the 21st century. In the foreseeable future it will replace the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter in U.S. Air Force service, because the aging F-117 is expensive to maintain.
But the timing of the replacement depends on money. The huge expense of the Iraq war is making Congress think twice about approving large-scale future U.S. military aircraft programs, said Plucker.
Already, in this fiscal year, the U.S. Senate has removed some JSF funding from its version of the defense appropriations bill. The House hasn?t, and the final bill will be negotiated in a conference committee; but resolution might not happen until after the 2008 fiscal year begins in October, said Plucker.
Should this prove the case, the appropriations hiatus ?will have effects? on the F-35 program. ?There will be program delays," added Plucker.
?Realistically, I look for substantial downsizing within the next ... two years of research, development, test and evaluation (RDTE) programs. Some programs in RDTE will be procured, but in limited quantities -- just enough to keep them in production,? said Plucker.
?Probably a lot of money will be spent to repair and replace aircraft now in Iraq and not a lot will be spent beyond that,? he said.
Some new programs, inexpensive by the Department of Defense's budget standards, are winning approval. The U.S. Army and Air Force recently placed a $2.04 billion contract for 78 C-27J Spartan tactical cargo aircraft. The C-27J is an upgraded Aeritalia G.222.
Increasingly, however, in the absence of replacement types, the U.S. armed forces must rely on refurbishing existing aircraft.
Offering much-improved performance compared with earlier models, the CH-47F is the latest version of the venerable Chinook transport helicopter. The Army is purchasing some new, but the vast majority of its 400-plus CH-47Fs will be renovated CH-47Ds already in service.
Similarly, the U.S. Air Force is refitting its C-5 Galaxy strategic airlifters with new avionics and more powerful engines and strengthening their structures to keep the huge aircraft in service until mid-century.