The Future of Military Aviation Isn’t Unmanned — at Least for Now

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September 10, 2018 | Originally published by Date Line: September 10 on

With a rapidly developing military drone industry growing in prominence the world over, and heavyweight defense contractors like Northrop Grumman devoting a large portion of their overall R&D programs to unmanned aerial vehicles, it’s easy to see that the future of military aviation will be largely unmanned. The benefits of such a transition are extensive, both economically and ethically, as fewer warfighters are put into harm’s way, and aircraft designed to operate without a human on board can forgo all of the complicated (and expensive) systems relied upon to keep those pilots alive. Accustomed to the rapid progression of technology we’ve enjoyed in recent decades, many now see the military pilot as an endangered species — a misconception that could be partially responsible for the significant shortage of combat pilots the Air Force is already contending with today.

So if it will likely soon become cheaper to field drones than manned aircraft in combat and it reduces the risk of death or capture among American aviators, why wouldn’t advanced militaries like those defending the United States and China already be making the push to get humans out of the cockpit and into the control room? Well, there are actually a number of reasons.

The biggest hurdle to overcome when considering a primarily drone operated air force (as in a force within that battle space, not the branch) is the technology’s level of maturity. Currently, no nation on earth has been able to develop a drone platform that is as capable within contested airspace as an aircraft with a pilot onboard.

[Autonomous aircraft systems do] not currently exist that can either mimic human levels of decision making or one that can offer a drone operator stationed elsewhere with the same level of in-the-moment situational awareness pilots in the fight have at their disposal. When it comes to making quick life or death decisions, even the communications delay between drone and operator can mean all the difference between success and failure.

Now, that lack of decision making capability can be overcome, but not without first having a long and difficult discussion about combat ethics. Giving computers the ability to make decisions about when to fire and when not to is the subject of significant debate stretching into concerns about precedent in the age of developing artificial intelligence. Just as many worry about driver-less cars making life or death decisions on America’s highways, many within the voting populous would find the idea of computers deciding to fire missiles at targets overseas [objectionable].

Instead, what we’re likely to see is manned sixth-generation fighters accompanied by drone platforms that are, in some ways, more capable combat aircraft than they’re operating — but it will be in their coupling with those manned aircraft that these drones will prove most valuable.