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MoD Minister: This is the last generation of manned fighters

Repeat of 1957 vision a bit more credible this time

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In a bizarre repeat of history, a British defence minister has given it as his opinion that we are currently witnessing development of the final generation of manned combat aircraft. The comments made last week by Quentin Davies MP echo those made in a 1957 government white paper by the then Defence minister, Duncan Sandys.

Mr Davies, minister for Defence Equipment and Support, made his new "last of the manned fighters" comments at an Unmanned Air Systems exhibition held on Friday at the London headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

"My own working assumption is that although we certainly need the manned combat aircraft, and are investing in some very good ones at the moment... that will take us through to the 2030s, but beyond that I think the name of the game will be UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles]," he said.

Later that day, the government did indeed ink a reduced deal for what seems likely to be the UK's final batch of Eurofighter/Typhoon jets. Current MoD plans also see Blighty purchasing an undisclosed number of F-35B Lightning II supersonic stealth jumpjets in the nearish future. The F-35 programme is now in flight testing prior to starting its main production run.

Beyond the F-35 and the Eurofighter, however, there are very few publicly-acknowledged projects underway in the Western world aimed at developing new crewed combat aircraft. Even those advocating such ideas tend to suggest that any future aircraft would be "optionally manned", perfectly able to operate without a crew if required. Aircraft like the UK's Taranis robo-bomber demonstrator and the US Navy's X-47B won't even have seats.

It would seem that Mr Davies' vision of fully robotic air forces within a couple of decades may be grounded in reality.

It isn't the first time that the UK government has expressed such views, however. The defence white paper of 1957 stated that manned bombers and fighters would soon be superseded by automated missiles. All British combat aircraft projects then underway were subsequently cancelled except for the Lightning fighter, with much doom and gloom from the UK aerospace industry (the P1127, which later became the Harrier, got rolling later). Defence Minister Sandys went on to acquire even more fame later, when he was named as "the headless man" in scandalous photos showing an unidentified chap receiving intimate oral favours from the (married) Duchess of Argyll.

Meanwhile a surprisingly large amount of UK aviation industry did manage to survive, furnishing the British forces with the much-loved but flawed* Lightning and going on to collaborate with continental partners on such planes as the Tornado and Eurofighter. The reduced UK Eurofighter order has already led to predictions of disaster for Britain's one remaining fighter factory.

As a practical matter, the UK is already incapable of making combat aircraft without assistance from abroad. The Eurofighter requires support from the continent and America; Blighty's one remaining military helicopter factory needs similar backup when making whirlybirds. As for large aircraft, the UK's main contribution nowadays is making the wings, as in the case of Airbus airliners and the A400M military transport.

Some or all of that manufacturing may well continue, but if Mr Davies is right, the British fighter-pilot community will indeed disappear at last. ®

*Its inability to remain airborne for much longer than twenty minutes was a serious problem, as was the plane's lack of any very effective sensors or weapons. It was very fast, however, and capable of reaching tremendous heights very quickly.

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