What could not be known when Northrop was making its sales projections in the late 1970's was that fighter aircraft would never again be manufactured in such numbers. The days of grant aid were over. With the exception of Egypt and Israel, provided front-line US fighters nearly free under the Camp David Peace Accords, everyone else would have to pay for the next generation of aircraft. And if that was not enough, the next generation would cost six times more than earlier models. In the blush of full production in the 1960's, an F-5A cost $879,000 and an F-5E $ 1.5 million. The F-20 was being offered for $ 8 million. Even taking into account the quantum jump in prices due to the hyper-inflation of the 1970's, the aircraft cost still 3 times more.
There were multiple reasons for this. Despite the window-dressing of thick volumes of operational studies and requirements reviews, governments tended to spend about the same amount of inflation-adjusted cash on defense every year. The portion allocated for procurement of fighters was, on the average, also of the same magnitude as in the past. This resulted in a vicious circle of increasing pricing resulting in lower quantities ordered, resulting in lower production rates and slower progress down the learning curve, resulting in even higher prices, resulting in ever lower quantities ordered, and on and on.
Another reason was the electronics arms race. First generation fighter radars were incredibly heavy, power-hungry, unreliable, and difficult to operate - barely worth having. They were mainly useful in allowing an interceptor vectored near a target by ground control to find it in the dark. Second generation radars, as flown in the F-4E, were more useful, but still unreliable and requiring a second crew member to fully concentrate on operating them correctly. Third generation radars began to take advantage of the digital electronics revolution. Typified by the AN/APG-63 on the F-15, they were highly automated and could be operated by the single pilot of the aircraft. They could process data and display the results in new and useful ways. When the next generation of lightweight fighters, the F-16 and F-18, entered production, they were both equipped with highly-capable multi-mode radars that could detect and track enemy aircraft dozens of miles away. Electronics miniaturization, digital electronics, and the use of software instead of analogue signal processing allowed many more radar modes and useful means of presentation of data.
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© Mark Wade, 1997 - 2006 except where otherwise noted.
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