September 18, 2007:
Australia just buried its last fighter pilot to have shot down an enemy
aircraft. George Hale was 22 years old when he was sent to Korea, to serve with
an Australian fighter squadron. In March, 1953, while flying a British built
Meteor jet, he shot down a MiG-15.
Australia isn't alone in
finding itself with a shortage of combat experienced pilots. Fighter pilots who
have shot down an enemy aircraft are a rapidly shrinking community. There are
two reasons for this. First, nuclear weapons have made wars between large
nations (that can afford to maintain large numbers of jet fighters) rare.
That's one aspect of nuclear weapons that is rarely discussed, but is sort of a
silver lining for an otherwise radioactive and cloudy subject.
The second reason is the
dominance of U.S. combat aviation over the last six decades. That gets taken
for granted as well. Since the middle of World War II, the U.S. Air Force and
Navy have dominated any aerial battlefield they have entered. That domination
has resulted in fewer air battles. The enemy is either destroyed on the ground,
or refuses to fight. Thus there are no more aces (those who have shot down five
or more aircraft) on active duty in the United States, or anywhere else. That's
been a trend for decades, and in a few more decades, there will be no more
living aces at all. Well, maybe not, but eventually that will be the case.
That's because pilotless combat aircraft are becoming more and more common, and
capable. The first of these, the cruise missile, is already over half a century
old. But recent developments in electronics (cheaper and more powerful) and
software (able to do more, and do it more quickly) has made it likely that
future fighter aces will be robots.