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Last of a breed

THE ROLL-OUT OF THE Lockheed Martin F-22 marks the end of an era. It is the last of the "cold-war" fighters; probably the last brand-new combat airframe with a brand-new engine to be flown this century; probably the last to embody "all the technology we could afford" instead of the likely future "as little technology as we could afford to get away with". It thus also probably marks the end of an era of headlong technical advance in military aerospace.

The loss of the single identifiable threat which drove the US Air Force's procurement policies for almost 50 years also means the loss of the main technical driver behind those policies. The issue was rarely that the then-USSR had better technology than did the USA, but that it always had almost-as-good technology in far greater volumes. Although the USA procured prodigious numbers of aircraft by any other measure, it never bought on the USSR's scale. It was, therefore, driven to make its fewer aircraft technically superior to the Soviet opposition. That driver was still in place when the F-22 project commenced, with the result that (despite massive design and production efficiencies from Boeing and Lockheed Martin) the aircraft as built is far more sophisticated and expensive than anything it is likely ever to meet in combat.

The next major combat-aircraft programme for the USA (the JSF joint strike fighter) has been conceived in the knowledge that the era of the technology-at-almost-any-price fighter has gone. Unlike the F-22, the JSF is to be (in US terms, at least) an "affordable" aircraft which, in those terms, roughly means "disposable" - an aircraft for which the numbers/cost equation is biased in favour of numbers.

Even though the F-22 has been reconfigured during development to embrace the ground-strike role (partly, at least, to reduce its vulnerability to budget attack), it is unlikely that the planners of the USAF's Air Combat Command will ever risk using it in the "mud-moving" role. For that, they will want to have available the cheaper JSF - something of which they can afford to lose a few examples.

For the USA's export customers (especially the paying ones), such a change in priorities will comes as something of a relief. For years, they have lived with the fear of not being able to afford the nearest thing possible to combat invincibility - or of their neighbours being able to afford it. Although it can be argued that the F-22 really makes economic sense only if the USA manages to export it, in reality there are very few customers indeed which could entertain the thought of buying it in more than penny numbers .

While that may be a consoling commercial thought to the ultimate winner of the JSF competition, it should not be to the industry as a whole. The one thing that the cold war did guarantee was an almost endless flow of development funds for the sort of technology which has benefited all sectors of the industry.

Leave aside charges of subsidisation of commercial programmes by military: the simple fact remains that without the last 50 years' worth of east/west competition on military programmes, much of today's aerospace technology would hardly have reached the research laboratory, far less have graduated from it. Without the military as a never-satisfied driver of technology, the industry may have to wait for commercial customers to demand advances - but they will want those advances to come with an immediate commercial return.

That does not mean that future programmes will be condemned to be throwbacks to an earlier, simpler age. It does mean, however, that fewer companies than ever will be able to afford to develop the technologies on which the industry will rely in the future, and that as a result even fewer new combat programmes will be embarked upon.

If the next generation of combat aircraft is unlikely to be more sophisticated than that which is to be rolled out this week, there will be little drive for it to happen. The F-22 and the marginally simpler and cheaper rivals such as the Eurofighter EF2000 and Dassault Rafale may end up being seen by history as representing the peak of development - and that means they could be around for a very long time indeed.