US Air Force Prepares Drones to End Era of Fighter Pilots

Published on
The Guardian/UK

US Air Force Prepares Drones to End Era of Fighter Pilots

The Pentagon aims to robotise 15% of US armed forces by 2015

Edward Helmore


As part of an expanding programme
of battlefield automation, the US Air Force has said it is now training
more drone operators than fighter and bomber pilots and signalled the
end of the era of the fighter pilot is in sight.

In a controversial shift in military thinking - one encouraged by the now-confirmed death of Pakistani Taliban
leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone-strike on 5 August - the US air
force is looking to hugely expand its fleet of unmanned aircraft by

Just three years ago, the service was able to fly just 12
drones at a time; now it can fly more than 50. At a trade conference
outside Washington last week, military contractors presented a future
vision in which pilotless drones serve as fighters, bombers and
transports, even automatic mini-drones programmed to attack in swarms.

made presentations for "nano-size" drones the size of moths that can
flit into buildings to gather intelligence; drone helicopters; large
aircraft that could be used as strategic bombers and new mid-sized
drones could act as jet fighters.

This Terminator-like vision in
which future generations of fighter aces become cubicle-bound drone
operators thousands of miles from conflict is already here: the
deployment that began during the Bush administration has accelerated
during the first seven months of Obama's term.

Some 5,000 robotic vehicles and drones are now deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By 2015, the Pentagon's $230bn arms procurement programme Future Combat
Systems expects to robotise around 15% of America's armed forces. In a
recently published study, The Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan
2020-2047, air force generals predicted a boom in drone funding to
$55bn by 2020 with the most exotic changes coming in the 2040s.

month, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates underscored the change in
strategic thinking when he capped production of the F-22 Raptor, the US
air force's most advanced interceptor, at just 187 planes, arguing that
it was designed to fight 20th century super-power conflicts or
"near-peer" engagements - and was not crucial to any future conflicts
foreseen at the Pentagon.

In June Army General Stanley
McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, said he couldn't
envision a day when he had enough surveillance assets. "The capability
provided by the unmanned aircraft is game-changing," offered General
Norton Schwartz, the air force chief of staff. "We can have eyes 24/7
on our adversaries."

Some analysts view the Flight Plan study as
a virtual death knell for the pilot profession and predict the F-22s'
successor, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, could be the last piloted
fighter program that is funded.

According to Oxford Analytica,
the US is likely to account for 77% of global drone research and
development and 64% of procurement over the next decade. US firms
currently control more than 50% of the market and could gain a further
10% over the next decade.

As US domestic approval for the
"Af-Pak" conflict slips (a new Washington Post poll found less than a
quarter of the US public support sending more troops to Afghanistan),
the reliance of drones is likely to grow, analysts say.

But with
mounting civilian casualties, even as an estimated 100 Taliban
militants and perhaps one half of al-Qaida leadership have been killed
in drones attacks since September, there is rising Pakistani opposition
to US strikes on its soil. Prime Minister Gilani repeated his requests
this week for the transfer of drone technology to the Pakistani
military. US officials have yet to publicly respond.

The air
force study suggests areas of warfare too critical for automation,
including dogfighting and nuclear-bombing, could eventually be handled
by drones.

For now the numbers are overwhelming - 550 drone
operators compared with 3,700 fighter and 900 bomber pilots - but a
future in which pilots merely direct planes remotely is unsettling to
many in 61-year-old service.

"Many aviators, in particular,
believe that a 'man in the loop' should remain an integral part of the
nuclear mission because of the psychological perception that there is a
higher degree of accountability and moral certainty with a manned
bomber," wrote Adam Lowther in Armed Forces Journal in June.

Eric Mathewson, who directs the air force task force on pilotless
aerial systems, has sought to downplay the study's most futuristic
predictions. "We do not envision replacing all air force aircraft with
UAS (unmanned aircraft systems)," he says.

The CIA runs its
Pakistan-focused drone programme from its headquarters in Langley,
Virginia, while the air force has designated Creech AFB, 35 miles north
of Las Vegas, Nevada, as centre for operations for flights over Iraq
and Afghanistan. No after-burners; no G-Force; no opportunity for "Top
Gun" flair.

Currently, airborne drones are directed by trained
pilots who then return to their assigned aircraft. This year, the
service started training career drone operators with no airborne
experience - they go to war in cubicles with a computer-game joystick
and eight video screens.

"It is safe to say most pilots will
always miss getting back in the air," Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Turner,
who leads Predator and Reaper training at Creech, told the LA Times.
"But we see where the air force is going."

The rapid development
of drone aircraft has given smaller defence industry players, including
General Atomics, makers of the MQ-1 Predator and the new, heavily armed
MQ-9 Reaper that carries 14 Hellfire missiles and guided bombs, the
chance to challenge established military contractors.

A British
developer, QinetiQ, is currently developing an ultra long duration
Zephyr high-altitude drone; another, Insitu, was recently acquired by
Boeing after developing the Scan Eagle, a basic aerial platform
originally designed for spotting ocean-going tuna.

Last April,
BAE Systems announced it has won a contract to lead the development of
crawling or flying robots designed to go into areas too dangerous for
troops. General Atomics, in San Diego, has announced plans for the
MQ-X, a three-in-one surveillance, attack and cargo drone.

at the sci-fi inspired technology, including the 2.3 gigapixel,
Predator-mounted camera Gorgon Stare and Northrop Grumman's
high-altitude Global Hawk, is not shared on the ground where it widely
viewed as cowardice.

Plans for drones that could be directed
autonomously present the military with a dilemma. Autonomous swarms of
drones preprogrammed to attack on their own is, at the least, unnerving
and legally problematic.

In Wired for War, author Pete Singer
speculates the machines are harbingers of a new era of "cost-free war".
In the Washington Post poll showing a majority of US public view the
war in Afghanistan as "not worthing fighting", the detached appeal of
drone combat is self-evident.

"It's a historic change," says
Singer. "Going to war has meant the same thing for 5,000 years. Now
going to war means sitting in front of a computer screen for 12 hours.
Then you go home and talk to your kids about their homework."

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