According to NBC News, the future of air combat may reside in the addition of fast-moving aerial drones that would accompany piloted fighter jets into battle:

“Military pilots may soon have a new kind of wing-man to depend upon: not flesh-and-blood pilots but fast-flying, sensor-studded aerial drones that fly into combat to scout enemy targets and draw enemy fire that otherwise would be directed at human-piloted aircraft.

“War planners see these robotic wing-men as a way to amplify air power while sparing pilots’ lives and preventing the loss of sophisticated fighter jets, which can cost more than $100 million apiece.”

Let us suppose that the military needs to send a force of fighter bombers such as the F-35 to attack an enemy target. Currently, the mission relies on the skill of its pilots and the stealthy qualities of the aircraft to be a success with minimal loss of aircraft and pilots.

In the new scenario, a swarm of drones equipped with sensors, electronic warfare equipment, and perhaps even weapons of their own would accompany the piloted fighter bombers.

The drone “wing-men” would scout out threats, from anti-aircraft missiles to other aircraft, and alert the human pilots to the threat. The drones would protect the human pilots by using electronic warfare measures, using their own on-board weapons, and even drawing fire to them. While a piloted jet could cost in excess of $100 million, one of the drones would cost about $2 million.

Furthermore, unlike the Predator, the drone used by the military for reconnaissance and for killing terrorists, the new drones would not be controlled by operators on the ground but by a sophisticated artificial intelligence system with little human intervention.

To be sure, whenever anyone sees the word “artificial intelligence” red flags start to appear, largely informed by the movies and a few experts who wonder if we’re starting to replace ourselves.

Hollywood has been churning out films in which AI computers turn on their creators ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey and Colossus: The Forbin Project decades ago. Indeed, a more recent film, entitled Stealth, depicted an AI controlled fighter bomber going rogue. The movie was a critical and box office bomb.

Leaving aside fears of AI piloted drones becoming destructive, some experts are wondering why we will need pilots with these weapons platforms will be available. The upcoming sequel to the movie Top Gun is said to involve the role of drones in modern aerial combat and whether they make pilots obsolete.

Most military experts counter that nothing can replace the merger of pilot and machine in effectively dominating the air in wartime. Paul Scharre, director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, D.C. is especially dubious about fully automated air combat.

“Scharre says the military still needs humans ‘forward in the fight’ to guide combat drones. But he too sees a coming shift in the role of combat pilots — from flying a fighter jet and controlling its weapons systems to acting as a ‘battle manager’ who decides what actions need to be taken by piloted and drone aircraft.

That will likely include deciding when drones should use deadly force and selecting specific targets — decisions that the U.S. military is hesitant to hand over entirely to AI in part because research suggests AI is less skilled than humans at adapting to changing or uncertain situations.”

A way to think about the relationship between the pilot and the drones is that the drones would be an extension of the aircraft that the human controller is occupying. The drones will have some autonomous capabilities, but the final decisions will be reserved for the human pilot.

Will the increased input of information and the need to send commands to a swarm of drones overwhelm the pilot’s capability to perform? Air combat is stressful as it is, with life or death often dependent on split-second decisions. No doubt the military is going to make that determination as the new system moves into the testing phase.

In any case, it looks like air combat is about to undergo a revolution as far-reaching as the time jets began to replace propeller-driven aircraft.

It is hoped that the addition of drones will maintain America’s ability to maintain air supremacy in future conflicts.

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