Visions of a war fought with robotic soldiers and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or a drone, has been for decades, deemed the fodder for science fiction lore. However, the military capabilities of drone aircraft have taken aviation warfare into a new Sci-Fi age. Does this mean the next great fighter ace will be a drone? Not necessarily.
The landscape of ground warfare changes slowly. However, the environment surrounding air assaults can be altered in an instant. There is an inherent delay in communications, if ever so slight, between ground control and a drone. With reaction time being so vital real time success in air combat, humans are still critical to the success of these missions.
Decisions Make in Real-Time
Piloting a military aerial assault involves more than just locating a target and hitting that target with a weapon. While developing an automated system to safely handle this basic type of mission has been achieved, creating technology that can address the changing landscape of air combat is another story.
In lieu of a robotic type of pilot in an unmanned aircraft, one with extremely advanced artificial intelligence, this may not be a realistically achievable goal. Larger missions involve aircraft that incorporate the sound decision-making skills of a flight commander. Warfare changes in a split second, so decisions must be made in real-time. The most minimal delay could cost lives, meaning drones are as yet, not the exclusive answer.
Whenever there is a necessity to have live soldiers on board, the idea of a remote source of intelligence, making all decisions, seems out of this world to coin a phrase. There will always be a need to have the more refined sense of human decision-making on board any military aircraft where a human presence is vital to mission success.
A Hybrid Mix
One logical assumption would be a hybrid mix of drone capabilities included within a manned aircraft. There is some indication that an automatically piloted fighter jet would free up an onboard human to focus exclusively on visual surveillance. This could allow even greater pinpoint accuracy of deployed weapons.
While the pilot is attentively focused on the mission objective, the UAV could gather and present data. Fighter pilots would be akin to the quarterback on a football team. They would have any number of coaching eyes, UAVs, absorbing and analyzing data. The pilot’s job would be to implement this information successfully.
Maybe someday, the world will be witness to an all-out aerial assault led exclusively by drone aircraft. However, for the foreseeable future, the next great fighter pilot will not take the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle.