The Air Force Wants a New ‘Century Series’ Of Jet Fighters. History Says No Way.

Sebastien Roblin

In September 2019, the Air Force Assistant Secretary for technology acquisitions Will Roper called for a new “Century of Series” of jet fighters. 

He was referring to six U.S. jet fighters rapidly introduced into service between 1954 and 1959 that brought the U.S. Air Force into an era of supersonic jet fighter operations. They later received “Century” appellation due to receiving the designations F-100 through F-106.

Roper wants a faster acquisition process that could churn out new warplanes every four years.  That’s understandable. Today’s process is so ponderous that major programs like the F-35 stealth fighter take multiple decades to enter service, leading to outrageous cost overruns and program cancelations, and systems that no longer meet U.S. operational needs when they finally enter service.  

But arguably the Century Series could serve as a case study of all the things that could go wrong with rapid development and acquisition. 

Few lasted long as combat aircraft in U.S. Air Force service. Several suffered extremely high accident rates that killed hundreds of pilots. And most were designed to fulfill narrow role and/or relied on technologies that were rapidly made obsolete by changes in doctrine and the advent of superior multirole jets.

The rapid pace of fighter innovation was possible due to there being more jet fighter building companies, and costs being considerably cheaper—even when adjusted for inflation. For example, a hulking F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber cost $2.14 million in 1960 dollars, or $18 million in 2019 dollars. Modern successors like the F-15E and F-35A cost around $80 million.

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