As a fighter pilot, I have a lot of respect for what Elon Musk has accomplished. His ability to not adhere to dogma has allowed him to revolutionize two industries through SpaceX and Tesla. Much like a physicist, he relies on first-principle science to solve problems, which allows him to see things from a fresh perspective. However, he is wrong about the fighter jet era being over.
“Locally autonomous drone warfare is where it’s at, where the future will be,” Musk said to Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium.
“It’s not that I want the future to be this, that’s just what the future will be. … The fighter jet era has passed. Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones.”
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As a fighter pilot, my job is to not fall in love with the aircraft I fly, but to use it as a tool to accomplish a mission. We are constantly looking for ways to optimize our lethality while minimizing risk. If there is a better way to accomplish a mission, then it is our duty to use it. While I agree with Elon Musk that the future is drone warfare, I think we’re a lifetime away from seeing a fully autonomous Air Force.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have fundamentally altered the way we train and fight. I’ve integrated with them extensively over my career and seen first-hand how valuable they are. Their persistence is unmatched—an MQ-9B recently flew for nearly 2 days without having to refuel. The sensors they carry are equally impressive, due to the weight savings from not having to keep a pilot alive. Perhaps most important, though, is that they don’t put human lives at risk.
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It’s important to understand that these UAVs are not autonomous—there is someone, usually half a world away, controlling every move by the aircraft. They are a lot more, in effect, like scaled-up radio-control aircraft than they are like robots. As we move away from limited conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq to near-peer adversaries with high-end capabilities, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the integrity of that signal. This means that to replace manned fighters, these drones will need to be autonomous, or make decisions on their own, in order to be effective.
As Elon Musk is finding out, making an autonomous vehicle is incredibly difficult. While Tesla’s autopilot can navigate reasonably well on highways, they have a much harder time in the city. There are so many edge cases (problems that only occur under extreme circumstances) involved in city driving that are nearly impossible to predict. When several of these one-in-a-thousand events happen simultaneously, the car’s autonomous software becomes overwhelmed. Remember, these cars are operating in a highly regulated environment where the rules are clearly defined.
Combat is the most dynamic environment imaginable. The fog and friction of war prevent a full understanding of the battlefield. In addition, the enemy is specifically targeting your weaknesses. Teslas don’t have to fight state actors that are specifically trying to make them crash.
Imagine a city that is more like “Mad Max,” where there are adversaries painting street lines into telephone poles and shining lasers into the car’s cameras—they wouldn’t go a block without being disabled.
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The same is true for an autonomous drone—it not only has to be able to make decisions on its own, but it must overcome an adversary that is specifically targeting its weaknesses. And that is where the human brain thrives—coming up with dynamic and creative solutions to undefined problems.
The current Venn Diagram of manned and unmanned aircraft capabilities is so far apart that neither is close to being replaced. The future is finding ways for both to operate as seamlessly as possible.
Feature image: U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Kip Sumner
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The skies may still belong to pilots today, (that’s as in manned aircraft). Tomorrow? They won’t. Well, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. AI is being developed and deployed at a fast pace. Soon? Well soon it will just be too dangerous for men to fly against drones. We’ve been reading about this eventuality for generations now, for as long as people can remember Popular Science, and Popular Mechanics.
There is, as Lee (why is his rank not given?) starts to admit, a performance cost to having pilots in planes. By and large, drones are not affected by the g-forces of flight. Many of the issues they do have are technologically addressable, which is one reason why mil-spec stuff is so expensive. Your laptop will not survive 10-g turns. Drones can have much larger performance envelope than pilots.
Other than that, I agree with the article. Humans are coming up short in the “brawn” department – just ask John Henry – but for now we’re still ahead in the “brains” department.
Michael Long says
I do like my Tesla. It is a great car I like Elon Musk, he is making the world a better place. I also like having human operators in those aircraft and on the ground (at Creech AFB, not Nellis). However, the hype in performance and autonomy that Elon is famous for does not match reality. The car is very quick off the line, but not nearly as quick in reality as claimed. The car has great range, but not nearly as far as what is claimed. The car will drive itself to stay in its lane and hold speed and distance to cars ahead of the car. However, any small wrinkle and the car can be confused. Only in the most tightly controlled circumstances and with a certain set of underlying assumptions will the car perform at the stated limits.
In normal operating conditions, or combat conditions there are no controlled circumstances. In the future, as in the past, Stonewall Jackson and his II Corps WILL just show up out of nowhere as the XI Corps is making their supper. An IJN battle fleet WILL just show up out of nowhere when Halsey is off chasing enemy carriers. Elon has made this a better world, but I really do not want him peddling the next Hyperloop to replace our fighter squadrons.
C. Earl Jantzi says
And mistakes in a multibillion dollar aircraft are much more costly than a drone.
Lol. Yeah right.
I absolutely agree. There will be counter systems to drones. Signals from half way around the world can be jammed. Cameras cant “feel” and respond as fast as the human brain can. There is limitations to remote piloted UAVs. The author is right. We are not quite there with remite control drones. Until real drones with true AI are in the sky, human piloted fighters are not out dated.
I agree, Its not over yet – but change is coming.
I think manned fighters will stay around but they will be more like the quarterbacks of the fight.
Some good evidence to support this is what Turkey has recently done with ground attack drones. How long before someone does the same thing in the air to air realm? Not long I suspect.
There will always be a man in the loop, no one is going to allow AI war fighting drones to fire weapons with out ok from a human. Drones can do the mundane tasks, from ISR, tankers, to loyal wingman.
I know nothing about flying,but I do so love watching my American pilots fly off carriers etc.. from posts on utube etc.. What I resent is people like the Musks of this world trying to take us to AI in planes, trains& automobiles. They trying to get me, a tax payer, to pay for tech that isn’t ready for prime time. Nowhere in our realm is a hint we are ready. If they want to impress me figure out how do successful recycling, use the rest of our waste as fuel.
Big damage dave says
No one cares if we think its ready or not.
Technology simply moves on with us or without us.
john A irvine says
Shouldn’t have Pilots wasted on driving current drones.. Knuckleheads even got crew rest! Soldiers needing CAS and pilot would be at Nellis AFB in the bathroom. Became to difficult for them to fly and manage drone ISR systems so they gave them a WSO or NCO…, Same tasks for both could be handled by an E-4 with 2 hours (training) playing and a bag of chips.., who never saw the drone. Fewer accidents, crashes and cost..,
Clement Khoo says
You’re an idiot. Be serious. This is a life and death matter. Kudos to Capt Hasard.
Of course this moron would say that. USAF pilots are the biggest idiots and liars in the service. Lowest recruiting standards too.
USAF said they didn’t need a gun, than Vietnam happened. Brass said they didn’t need IRST, than everyone but airforce had them until the Turkey-35 and it’s already old tech compared to most pods.
The F15EX will be doing the jobs the Turkey should have been, and it’ll be paired with drones to get it done.
David Kelly says
USAF pilots are the best and brightest in all of the United States Armed Forces, bar none!!! No one has higher standards!!!
Jonathan G Isernhagen says
Standards are one thing. Carrier qualification is something else.
David Kelly says
BTW…the EVIL DEMOKKKRATS are destroying this country AND the World!!
You’re an idiot!
Your a complete idiot. You moron.,you couldnt get past ground school much less basic flight training. Being a pilot isnt playing Xbox fool. Your comment illustrates your infantile IQ.
Until AI becomes self aware, then teaching it threats, will mean it will always have an exploit that can be leveraged. Only when it becomes truly self aware, and sees threats the same way we do, it will never be able to fully generate a response to someone trying to erase it.
Not even sure GANs (Generational Adversarial Networks) can adapt fast enough to react to the kind of cunning a brain in a fighter will employ vs. AI that currently simply doesn’t see “threats” the way we do.
Just my opinion, could be wildly wrong.
Raymond D Babcock says
AI will make mistakes. Most likely they will be worse than the mistakes people make.