Monday, April 9, 2012

Thinking Beyond F35s

Mine is bigger than yours.

Bigger is better.

A giant, expensive, centralized system is better than a small, distributed, flexible system.

Cost of an F35: $618 million per plane over its operational life time*

Don't get me wrong, I dig fighter planes, I always have.  From years in air cadets and being a teen when Top Gear came out, I totally get the glamour and the over the top nature of this culture.

The bravado, the opportunity for men (and pretty much only men) to strut like peacocks, or play the part of knights of the sky, is cool.  But it's an awful lot of money to pay for an ego boost.

Canada is a massive country that offers unique and challenging requirements for air defense.  We need an air defense system that can launch in remote locations, works in a huge range of temperatures and can loiter on station (in the air) for many hours.

Such a system does not need to have human beings in aircraft all the time.  Instead of catering to the macho fighter plane culture by participating in the most expensive defense contract in history*, why not look at this from a distributed, 21st Century point of view, rather than a centralized, 20th Century way of thinking.

If you believe the $75 million per plane that the current Canadian Government is misleading (and it is significantly less than anyone else is buying them for)*, then the F35 does seem a reasonable option, but even at the fictionally lower price, there are still many, home-made options that we won't even consider because it doesn't let men act like boys with toys.

UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, offer a number of advantages over manned vehicles.  For a fraction of the cost you can have many more eyes (and hands) in the sky.  Canada's high tech industry is in an excellent position to advance this field dramatically, especially in developing drone systems that would work in extreme environments.

Instead of pumping billions of dollars into the American aerospace industry, virtually none of which will result in any Canadian manufacturing, why not consider an alternative?  Take a fraction of that and begin a Canadian engineering challenge for post secondary and private aerospace companies across the country.  All research and development is shared as part of the contest (like the X Prize).  An open source, collaborative and competitive project to develop an integrated, Canadian made aerial system.

The resulting designs will be built in Canada using Canadian designs.  This shouldn't be a single design goal either, but rather multiple platforms for many different functions.  Off hand I'd like to see:

  • a rocket assisted drone launch system that doesn't require a runway and can be launched from a mobile (truck based) platform.  When spent the drone can parachute to a landing point and be recovered
  • a ship based system that works in a similar way and offers a catching system - every Canadian naval vessel would become an air craft carrier.
  • reconnaissance drones that operate as data collectors; including a low speed loitering system and a high speed intercept system that offers stealth capability
  • fixed wing and rotary wing (and other less conventional systems) used in specific situations
  • a Snowbirds variant that can work either via remote control or entirely automatically
  • I'm dying to see what an Avro Arrow for the 21st Century looks like
These systems would encourage the development of on-board intelligences that are able to work independently, but that can only happen if we can get the ego out of the way.  Human beings do not have to be on board for an aerial vehicle to be highly effective.  In fact, the cost to equip the vehicle to carry humans goes well beyond money and into physics.  The weight of human needed subsystems will ultimately put manned fighter planes at a disadvantage.  A hybrid of remote human/on board intelligence is sure to offer the advantages of both instinct and calculation in bringing aerial power to bear.

Instead of buying into old, incredibly expensive thinking, we could be developing a home made, distributed UAV system that we could then export world wide, instead of just being a consumer of someone else's old thinking.