Kotarski: Are drones a viable alternative to the F-35?

By: /
30 May, 2012
By: Kris Kotarski
Columnist for the Calgary Herald


“How do you get a single-engine, low-range, low-payload, low-manoeuvrability aircraft that is being optimized for close air support . . . to operate effectively in the North?” asked retired colonel Paul Maillet, an aerospace engineer and former CF-18 fleet manager this April (http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/04/25/f-35-a-serious-strategic-mismatch-for-canadas-north-retired-colonel-says/).

You don’t, or at least you don’t do so without sacrificing plenty of hours in the air due to pilot fatigue and routine maintenance. With drones, pilot fatigue is much less of an issue. And maintenance?

Here’s what we know in 2012:

The Pentagon estimates it will cost about $30,000 per hour to operate the F-35. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/26/us-lockheed-fighter-idUSTRE81P0RV20120226) Of course, Pentagon cost estimates tend to be revised in only one direction. Meanwhile, thanks to an audit by Homeland Security Department’s inspector general, we also know that each Predator drone costs about $3,000 an hour to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. (http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/28/nation/la-na-drone-bust-20120429) Considering how quickly drone technology is advancing, this number has the potential to go down.

What about other, non-surveillance uses? Rob Huebert, professor at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, has argued that countering Russian, long-range bomber patrols close to Canadian airspace is reason enough to choose the F-35 because “unfortunately, F-35s seem to be the only thing that anybody in the West is producing that meets that type of a need.” (http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Politics/2012/03/15/19508901.html)

That may be true today, but then there is little risk of Canadian-Russian dogfights over the arctic at present time. And in the near future? A number of military experts have speculated that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter could be the last manned fighter plane ever produced (the U.S. Air Force said in 2011 that it has trained more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined), and drone technology is only getting better each year. Canadian military goals are far less expansive than those of the U.S. (and should remain so), and because drones cannot help but be more flexible and less costly for military budgets, they are certainly a viable alternative to the F-35.

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