The U.S. Air Force has made a subtle, but meaningful, change in how it approaches drones (unmanned aircraft.) The air force no longer calls these aircraft UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles), but UCAV (Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicles.) The big breakthrough is rapidly advancing electronic and software technologies that make "uninhabited" aircraft safer for human pilots while increasing effectiveness and, of course, eliminating the political fall out from losing a pilot in combat. The trick is to mix truly robotic flight (controlled by onboard sensors and software) and control from a ground based pilot many miles away. In the past, the electronic link to a ground based pilot was always seen as a crucial vulnerability. But now it is possible to use software to take over if the electronic link is broken by enemy jamming or battle damage. Of course, the missions could be controlled completely by software, as cruise missiles have been doing for over two decades. Depending on future software developments, software replacing human pilots will come eventually. But at the moment, and for another decades or so at least, human pilots still have advantages in sizing up situations and running operations up there.
Why the sudden change in attitude among combat pilots? Commercial flight simulator games have convinced a generation of combat pilots that they can be effective without the 360 degree visuals of a real warplane cockpit. This was an unanticipated side effect of PC based flight simulator games. With only a CRT in front of them showing the view in one direction, pilots were able to hit a key to look right, left or to the rear and still size up the situation and take effective action. Crude, clumsy, but it worked. Current video camera design allows a UCAV to provide the same effect, and thousands of pilots already have lots of practice on what to do next. Moreover, a lot of pilots are chafing at the current restraints placed on their operations. While a policy of "lost no pilots in action" goes down well with the average combat pilot, these folks are willing to take some risks. With UCAVs they can take risks again, and accomplish a lot more.
Even with software pilots alone, there is still a need to communicate with other aircraft and commanders (both air force and those on the surface). Work in this area began to build up in the 1990s, when the air force spent over three billion dollars on UAV development. Today there are only about 90 UAVs in use by all services. By 2010, that number will rise to at least 300, including the first UCAVs. This does not include cruise missiles, which are also being used in greater numbers. But there are only about 3,000 cruise missiles left. They are one way weapons and there is resistance to building more when two way UCAVs are on the drawing board. Smaller smart bombs and shorter range missiles on UCAVs are seen as a more economical way to hit targets. Another crucial reason for flying "uninhabited" aircraft is that over the last few decades their performance has been limited by how much physical stress the pilots could handle. This is not a problem when the pilot is on the ground or inside a computer. The UCAV is thus faster and more maneuverable than an identical, but inhabited, aircraft. But these days, it's not enough to hit targets, you have to hit them more accurately. This is where human pilots working with UCAVs come in. Human pilots can make that list minute check of the target before dropping the bomb. Someday, software can be trusted to do that. But for now, that ability is still theoretical. The key to all this is the more powerful microcomputers programmed to react accurately to combat situations. This is where a lot of money is going. The future for air combat is robots and the robots are being designed, built and tested.