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Elon Musk calls for a drone to compete with the F-35

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Elon Musk set the internet on fire Friday with calls for an advanced drone that could compete with, or downright beat, America’s premier fighter, the F-35.

Billionaire Elon Musk is no stranger to drawing headlines. Between his business enterprises like SpaceX and Tesla and controversial appearances in things like the Joe Rogan podcast, Musk has changed the way the world sees real-life billionaires, with supporters drawing parallels between Musk and fictional moguls like Batman’s Bruce Wayne or Iron Man’s Tony Stark.

During a conversation with Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium on Friday, Musk was asked if he had an innovative ideas in the realm or aerial warfare, and in classic Elon Musk style, he didn’t pull any punches.

“Locally autonomous drone warfare is where it’s at, where the future will be,” Musk said. “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.”

He also weighed in on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has been heralded by some as the most advanced aircraft the world has ever seen, and criticized by others as a shining example of governmental waste. Despite its impressive performance, the F-35 has been plagued with setbacks and cost overruns for years.

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Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

“Not to cause controversy, but in my opinion, the Joint Strike Fighter — there should be a competitor to JSF. I know that’s [a] controversial subject,” Musk said.

Many would argue that Musk is right. The F-35 is seen by some as what happens when the military puts all its eggs in one basket, so to speak, with production of America’s only other fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, not only shut down, but largely cannibalized to sustain F-35 production. Now, as China’s fifth-gen J-20 and Russia’s Su-57 continue to mature, Musk seems worried that the F-35 will stagnate without stiff competition.

What’s more, he says this new platform should be a drone that’s controlled by a human but augmented by software… and to be frank, he’s probably right.

Aside from (perhaps unintentionally) channeling the cheesy 2005 movie “Stealth,” in which a team of fighter pilots are joined by an advanced UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle), Musk also spurred thoughts of programs that are whispered about among aviation nerds like me… programs like the SR-72.

elon musk f-35

The SR-71 Blackbird was a legendary surveillance aircraft that, despite being retired for decades, still holds the title of fastest production plane ever, thanks it’s top end that sat just beyond Mach 3. For years now, Lockheed Martin have hinted at the possibility of a scramjet powered successor that would achieve hypersonic speeds in excess of Mach 6.

Now, Lockheed Martin has never indicated whether or not this developmental program would result in a manned or unmanned platform, but in truth, sticking a pilot in the cockpit of a hypersonic fighter would only limit its capabilities. Human beings are highly susceptible to the negative effects of the extreme G-forces that would be unavoidable at those velocities. Making the SR-72 or a similar jet unmanned would allow it to push the envelope in a way no manned aircraft ever could.

The problem, however, is lag. Although drones have engaged aircraft in training environments, they lack the quick decision making skills a human pilot possesses — and controlling these platforms from great distances creates a delay as messages are transmitted and received by the drone. To date, no drone platform is advanced enough to operate like a manned fighter could, but that may not always be the case.

And one could argue that if anyone could bridge that technological gap, it’s the man that made electric cars and reusable spacecraft more practical and available than ever before.

Will Elon Musk throw his hat into the military aviation ring? Only time will tell.

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.