Is the day of the hot-shot fighter jock nearly done?
An Air Force study, released without much fanfare on Wednesday,
suggests that tomorrow’s dogfighers might not have pilots in the
cockpit. The Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan.
which sketches out possible drone development through the year 2047,
comes with plenty of qualifiers. But it envisions a radical future. In
an acronym-dense 82 pages, the Air Force explains how ever-larger and
more sophisticated flying robots could eventually replace every type of
manned aircraft in its inventory — everything from speedy, air-to-air
fighters to lumbering bombers and tankers.
Emphasis on “might” and “could.” While revealing how robots can
equal the capabilities of traditional planes, the Air Force is careful
to emphasize that an all-bot air fleet is not inevitable. Rather,
drones will represent “alternatives” to manned planes, in pretty much
every mission category.
Some of the missions tapped for possible, future drones are
currently considered sacrosanct for human pilots. Namely: dogfighting
and nuclear bombing. Drones “are unlikely to replace the manned aircraft for air combat missions in the policy-relevant future,” Manjeet Singh Pardesi wrote in Air & Space Power Journal,
just four years ago. Dogfighting was considered too fluid, too fast,
for a drone’s narrow “situational awareness.” As for nuclear bombing:
“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,” Adam
Lowther explained in Armed Forces Journal, in June.
Despite this, the Air Force identifies a future “MQ-Mc” Unmanned
Aerial System for dogfighting, sometime after 2020. The MQ-Mc will also
handle “strategic attack,” a.k.a nuke bombing. Less controversial is
the conjectural MQ-L, a huge drone that could fill in for today’s
tankers and transports.
But just because a drone could replace a manned plane, doesn’t necessarily mean it definitely will.
“We do not envision replacing all Air Force aircraft with UAS,” Col.
Eric Mathewson told Danger Room by email. “We do plan on considering
UAS as alternatives to traditionally manned aircraft across a broad
spectrum of Air Force missions … but certainly not all.” In other
words, in coming years drones might be able to do everything today’s
manned planes can do — technically speaking. But the Air Force still
might find good reasons — moral, financial or otherwise — to keep
people in some cockpits.
The Flight Plan represents a new twist in a heated debate
raging in Congress over the Pentagon’s 3,000-strong fighter force. The
legislature is split over whether to fund more F-22 fighters — a move
that could draw a veto from President Barack Obama. Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates has long favored drone development over buying
more manned fighters, and in May Joint Chiefs chair Admiral Mike Mullen
predicted Gates’ position would win out,
over the long term. “There are those that see [the F-35 Joint Strike
Fighter] as the last manned fighter,” Mullen said. “I’m one that’s
inclined to believe that.” General Atomics, which makes the popular
Predator line of drones, underscored Mullen’s comment by unveiling its
new, faster Predator C.
If Flight Plan proves an accurate predictor, it’s not just
manned fighters (maybe) headed for extinction, but (maybe) nuclear
bombers, transports, tankers … nearly all human-occupied military