November 2, 2009: The U.S. Air Force has a morale problem with its combat pilots. The issue is lack of action for the pilots. That, plus the increased use of unmanned aircraft, and the very real prospect that the age of the manned combat aircraft may be coming to an end. This is made worse with hundreds of fighter pilots being assigned to operating Predator and Reaper UAVs. This was not popular duty, even though the pilots still draw flight pay. It is tedious work, although the UAV operators often saw more combat action than they did when piloting F-16s or F-15s.
The air force tried to deal with the morale problem by training non-pilots to be UAV operators, and making UAV operation a career field. Some fighter pilots saw that as an opportunity, and considered switching permanently, rather than just doing three years with UAVs and then going back to manned aircraft. But most pilots would rather fly in an aircraft. A recent air force decision to transfer 100 pilots a year from flight school (where they just graduated) to UAV duty was very unpopular. The air force had asked flight school graduates to volunteer for this, but none did so.
The air force is also considering changing the term UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) to RPV (remotely piloted vehicles), to stress the fact that there was still a pilot involved. But that decision, if carried through, is in danger of being overtaken by events. UAVs are increasingly equipped with flight control software that operates all by itself. Many UAVs already use such software for takeoffs and landings.
Many people, including some generals in the air force, believe that its next generation fighter will not have a pilot on board. Many air force generals admit that the F-35 is probably the last manned fighter. But some believe that the F-35 will be facing stiff competition from pilotless fighters before F-35 production is scheduled to end in 2034.
UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) are not particularly popular with many U.S. Air Force leaders, but that is not the case in many other countries. Air force generals around the world see the unpiloted jet fighter as a way to break the monopoly the U.S. Air Force has had on air supremacy for the last sixty years. Most Americans don't even think of this long domination of the air, but potential enemies of the United States are well aware of it, and that domination has a profound effect on how those nations do their military planning. In effect, if you think about going to war with the United States in the immediate future, you take for granted that American aircraft will control the skies above. Robotic jet fighters could change that. And this is forcing American air force generals to confront a very unsavory prospect; a sixth generation fighter that is flown by software, not a pilot.
It's not just that most of the those American air force generals began their careers as fighter pilots. No, the reason is more practical. American air superiority has largely been the result of superior pilots. The U.S. didn't always have the best aircraft, but they always had the most talented and resourceful pilots. And that's what gave the U.S. its edge. Will that translate to software piloted fighters? Research to date seems to indicate it will.
Meanwhile, simulations, using fighter flown by software, versus those flown by humans, have been used for over two decades. The "software pilots" have gotten better, and better. Moreover, a fighter without a pilot is more maneuverable (because some maneuvers are too stressful on the human body.) UAV fighters can be smaller, cheaper, stealthier and more expendable. But the key to software pilots is the development of superior tactics, and artificial intelligence (AI) that is more capable than anything your opponent can come up with.
The U.S. Air Force, and several other air forces, have already created fighter pilot software, and now the United States, and Russia, are creating pilotless fighters. Many air force generals are convinced that the pilotless fighters will perform as well for real, as they have in the simulations. So convinced are U.S. Air Force generals, that they are seriously considering a sixth generation fighter that will not carry a human pilot. Otherwise, enemy pilotless fighters would have an edge over the U.S. sixth generation aircraft.
The potential superiority of U.S. pilotless fighters is partly driven by the fact that most American fighter pilots are geeks. Many can create software, and have a deep understanding of the many computers, and their software, that modern aircraft contain. It's the fighter pilots who will play a key role in creating the best "software pilots." Thus the thinking is that American control of the air will be maintained by a new generation combat aircraft controlled by software, not someone in a cockpit.