October 26, 2007:
The U.S. Air
Force believes that its next generation fighter will not have a pilot on board.
As is customary, development of the next generation fighter gets underway just
as the latest ("fifth generation") F-22 is entering service. Thus, two years
after the F-15 entered service in 1979, planning got under way to develop the
UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles)
are not particularly popular in the U.S. Air Force, 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, 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