One of the frequent criticisms levied against the F-35 is that it and its cost aren’t necessary because UAVs can do everything that an F-35 can do (and more) and doesn’t risk the pilot.
According to the Air Force, that only counts where it doesn’t matter – “benign airspace”. In contested or denied airspace, UAVs don’t cut the mustard:
Most current unmanned aircraft do not have the maneuverability or self-defense systems to adequately protect themselves in an A2/AD environment, the USAF says. In the future, the USAF needs to work on "developing better self-protection, increased maneuverability, smaller signatures, more robust/redundant network integration, and situational awareness inputs from other cross-domain sensors."
Eventually, unmanned aircraft will become capable of accomplishing more mission types, but will not necessarily replace manned aircraft in all mission areas, the service says.
The bottom-line, Schwartz says, of a day when unmanned aircraft might operate deep inside enemy airspace: "There are some things we're not yet prepared to do, and it's not that it might not happen at some point, but it's not a near-term eventuality."
To penetrate into the A2/AD environment, the USAF will rely on space, cyber and 5th generation fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35. But cyber-warfare will play an increasingly large role. "As we take down threats through kinetic or cyber-attacks, we open windows in the anti-access environment to fly our less robust systems, whether manned or unmanned," the USAF says.
Or, once the F-35s clear the way, then UAVs can be introduced.
The obvious argument to counter that is to fix those UAVs up so they do have the ability to go into contested airspace. However, one only has to think back to a recent “robust” UAV program that was scaled back to provide an inkling into why that, at least at this juncture, is not likely.
Global Hawk. Remember it? Its cost grew to over a $100 million a copy. It required a crew of 3 (yes, virtual crew members, but still required for each flight). And what can’t it do? Operate in an A2/D2 environment, something the F-35 is designed to do.
Can anyone guess what it might cost in addition to it’s base cost, to equip it to fly in such an environment? Yes, much more than an F-35.
And that’s the point. Right now, those contending that UAVs can and will be able to operate in such an environment as may be demanded in future conflicts have nothing to point to with any credibility to make their point.
The F-35, however, does (see post on Northern Edge 2011).