Warplanes: Killer Software

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August 23, 2016: Back in 2009 the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (a navy admiral and the senior military guy in the Pentagon) and his boss (the Secretary of Defense) both admitted that the future of combat aviation is UAVs (unmanned aircraft). Senior Department of Defense officials agreed that the next heavy bomber would probably be a UAV. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs believes that the F-35 will probably be last American manned combat aircraft. Since then

Now comes an American company (PSIBERNETIX) that has developed software that gives an unmanned aircraft the ability to defeat manned aircraft in air-to-air combat. The U.S. Air Force recently tested the PSIBERNETIX software in a combat simulator against experienced human pilots. The software controlled aircraft could not be defeated, at least not yet. What shocked the experienced human pilots, who had the technical skills to understand what the PSIBERNETIX software did and how it did it, was that the new software, as many software developers have been predicting, can outperform humans because with enough information (from the growing number of sensors available to manned or unmanned combat aircraft) the software can think faster than the human pilot. This is how software eventually defeated the best human chess players and have replaced humans in many jobs that require absorbing a lot of data, sorting it out and making decisions quickly.

Air-to-air combat with UAVs was long one topic no one wanted to discuss openly. This was seen as the last job left for pilots of combat aircraft. The geeks have long believed they had this one licked and were giving the fighter pilot generals the "bring it on" look. The American generals were not keen to test their manned aircraft against a UAV, but this will change the minute another country, like China or Russia, demonstrates that they are seriously moving in that direction. Meanwhile the U.S. Air Force was willing to test challengers in simulators, and now they have lost. Russia and China are paying close attention.

Meanwhile, many UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) designers want to equip the UCAVs with sensors (various types of video cams) to give the aircraft the same kind of "situational awareness" that piloted aircraft have. But for this to work, the UCAV would need software that would enable it to think like a fighter pilot. The techies say this can be done. But the fighter pilots that run the air force and naval aviation are not so sure. There also some worry about job security and pilots being replaced by robotic aircraft. All this is headed for some mock combat exercise between manned and unmanned fighters. Such tests will be a competition between pilots and programmers. But the programmer community contains fighter pilots as well, and the smart money is on the geeks to outsmart, or at least outfly, the human pilots. No one thinks it will be a lopsided battle, but the robotic aircraft are so much cheaper, that even a dead even finish favors the pilotless aircraft. The geeks have already demonstrated the prowess of their artificial fighter pilots in simulators, and even flight simulators available in the game market.

Another thing to keep in mind is that UAVs are nothing new. Guided missiles are UAVs that are used only once, and these were developed during World War II (over 70 years ago). By the 1970s, radio controlled aircraft that could be reused became practical. There were even experiments with rigging manned aircraft to be operated remotely. Tests with these UAVs found that they were superior in combat to manned aircraft. But UAVs did not take over back then because of shortcomings in communications (no satellite datalinks) and situational awareness (no cheap, small and reliable cameras placed all around the aircraft and used, along with GPS, to inform the remote operator where the aircraft was and what it was doing). Those problems were solved in the 1990s. As the senior brass at the Pentagon have concluded, it's time for the UAVs to take over.

The U.S. Navy made it official in early July 2016 and announced what it will call its first carrier-based unmanned combat aircraft. This UCAS (unmanned combat air system) will be called the MQ-25A Stingray and it will enter service in the early 2020s. All this comes after a decade of design, development and test flights. The UAV that made the MQ-25A possible rolled out as the X-47B in 2008. This was the first carrier-based combat UAV, with a wingspan of 20 meters (62 feet, and the outer 25 percent folds up to save space on the carrier) and could stay in the air for up to twelve hours. The 20 ton X-47B weighs a little less than the 24 ton F-18A and has two internal bays holding two tons of smart bombs. It is a stealthy aircraft. As built the X-47B could be used for a lot of bombing missions, sort of a super-Reaper. The navy has been impressed with the U.S. Air Force success with the Predator and Reaper. But the propeller driven Reaper weighs only 4.7 tons. The much larger X-47B uses a F100-PW-220 engine, which is currently used in the F-16 and F-15.

It should be no surprise that a navy admiral speaks so enthusiastically about UAVs. In 2008 the U.S. Navy rolled out its first combat UAV (or UCAS, for Joint Unmanned Combat Aerial System) and in 2016 they are ordering the MQ-25A. Work on this began in 2001 and in 2003 the X-47A made its first flight.

 


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