New Delhi: If it were not for the missing air force pilot, one would smirk at the absurdity of the crash of an F-35A fighter jet into the Pacific Ocean off Northern Japan. Locally assembled, the jet belonged to the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force and was on a training mission. The unnamed military pilot aged forty had about three thousand five hundred hours of flying experience. The pilot called in to abort the mission and disappeared.

Conceivably the biggest naval search of recent times was mounted for the crashed jet led by the United States with participation of its partners. The missing pilot dropped in priority for the search party. There was an insane scramble to retrieve as much of the crashed F-35 that was recoverable before the Russians and the Chinese swooped down like raptors on the debris of the stricken aircraft. Billed as the most advanced fighter jet built to date with revolutionary stealth technology, avionics, engines and so forth, the Americans were terrified that the Russians could reverse engineer anything they found of the crashed F-35A.

In air force tradition set over many decades, the pilot is placed on a level superior to the plane entrusted to him. In war, pilot and aircraft losses are abnormally high; but examples of past wars suggest that the life of a pilot still enjoyed a premium over the machine. The Japanese upended the principle with the Kamikaze raids, but the pilots who willed death for themselves did visualize a glorious afterlife surrounded by favourite cherry blossoms. When the Aryan philosophy of Nazism did not yield a superior Luftwaffe to bomb Britain to submission, Adolf Hitler authorized the various rocket bombs, the trail blazers of today’s guided missiles and drones. In the end, Hitler did not care about lives, German or non-German lives, much less Jew lives. He hoped machines would win the war for him. They didn’t. But he had opened a new strategic realm which states could not afford to ignore.

Oddly, manned flying machines survived missiles, later-day drones, etc. But changes did occur. At the very least, pilots were restored to their superior positions vis-a-vis machines. And piloted machines dropped in numbers as missiles, etc, took up the more hazardous roles. But at all times, there was an overhang of doubt and fear about letting technologies get far ahead of purpose or the Clausewitzian “political objective”. For example, when Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration denied him and his reconnaissance mission. But Nikita Khrushchev had no small glee trumpeting the haul of photographs from U-2’s sophisticated spy cameras. The plane too was found remarkably intact. Powers had neither killed himself (as instructed) nor activated the U-2’s self-destruct mechanism. All in all, it proved a massive embarrassment for Eisenhower who was also caught lying.

One could argue that U-2 couldn’t have done its tasks without incorporating high technology. It flew higher than most military planes of the time but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, with the growth and sophistication of missiles, satellites took over much of the workload of strategic reconnaissance. The U-2 problem has not gone away but indeed has crept back as fighter jets become more and more advanced. They have become so advanced like the F-35 that losing the plane is seen as a bigger disaster than losing the pilot.

It is unlikely that the F-35 will ever get into a dogfight situation with a comparable or slightly inferior Russian or Chinese jet. The F-35 has been used in two bombing missions so far. The first was an Israeli mission and they won’t say where. Knowing the Israelis, it would be a highly unequal mission: the opposition would have no chance to retaliate. If any aircraft would do, what’s the idea of using the most sophisticated warplane in the world? The second F-35 bombing mission was an American one in Afghanistan. That is the equivalent of taking a Rolls Royce to drop off old papers at the raddiwalah.

Worldwide, the window for operating warplanes is getting smaller. A serious reappraisal of the role of ultra-sophisticated fighter jets is overdue. Planes like the F-35 have gotten so sophisticated that they cannot fall into enemy hands. It defeats the purpose for which they are built. Cynically, the pilot is of secondary importance in super-advanced machines.

On the other hand, the more sophisticated the warplanes get, the greater the need to sell it to the most number of countries, compromising security of states along the way. The Indian Air Force was spooked by a news report that Pakistani pilots had trained on Qatar’s Rafale jets giving them inadvertent expertise to counter the same machines when inducted into the IAF. The French denied the report but the Middle East is not without examples of states outsourcing military flying to foreign nations.

Or consider Israel’s pathetic plea to the United States to sell Turkey an inferior version of the F-35 to preserve the military balance. It would be just the excuse Turkey needs to dump the Americans and embrace the Russians, consequences be damned. The day probably is not far when warplanes become so precious that they will not be flown on any but the safest missions. The question that follows is: Why have them at all?