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From Our What Could Wrong Department: Pilot-Free Computer Controlled Combat Aircraft

drone aircraft
Many CHQ readers may have seen the article “This laser-armed drone could blow fighter jets out of the sky” through a link on The Drudge Report where it came to our attention. The article by Michael Peck in the British-based magazine The Week got us thinking “What could go wrong with that?” so we dug a little deeper into the topic.
Peck’s article was prompted by the article “Nightfall, Machine Autonomy in Air-to-Air Combat” by Capt. Michael W. Byrnes, USAF, in the Air & Space Power Journal. (Link at the end of this article)
Capt. Byrnes’ article had a great deal of fascinating information about computer vs. human decision making times and especially about the concept (my term here) of “swarm learning” where a network of computer controlled combat vehicles “learns from every detail of the encounter with real-time machine learning. It can pass lessons to other UCAVs, making partnered aircraft smarter by every engagement.”
Such networking would obviously not be limited to aircraft alone, but would enable all other networked systems to acquire the information and act on it – autonomously.
Another interesting area Byrnes explored is the cost effectiveness of an autonomous system arguing quite persuasively that an autonomous aircraft would ultimately be cheaper to build and to operate and fight.
In Byrnes’ calculation “each Raptor has a flyaway cost of $148 million, each F-35 in low-rate initial production was $153 million during 2011, and a fighter pilot costs an estimated $2.6 million.20 An AIM-9X missile is approximately $300,000.21 If the aircraft and crew are fixed setup costs and their weapons are marginal costs of engaging a target, then the [autonomous fighter] system is poised to become substantially more affordable than the fifth-generation fighters it is engineered to overcome. FQ-X has a high percentage of commercial off-the-shelf hardware, small size, and no need for a one-to-one crew-to-aircraft ratio. The marginal cost for two stabilized cannon rounds fired at close range is a mere $20.”
The notion that such a sophisticated system could come in so cheaply in the hands of the US military-industrial complex is certainly open to question, but would no doubt be persuasive to Capitol Hill budget setters who are always trying to look like they are saving taxpayers a buck while still employing the maximum number of their constituents in the aircraft and tech industries.
Interestingly, and we think perceptively, another influencer of a decision to move forward with an autonomous combat aircraft that Byrnes identifies is interservice rivalry, noting that the Navy is incrementally maturing the technology and concepts of autonomous combat aircraft and that the other service will soon have far more impressive UAVs than the Air Force.
Now here’s the key point in Byrnes’ article from our perspective. Once you accept the idea that a fighter (or a bomber) is not a machine whose purpose is to fly, rather it is a weapon with computers and airframes attached, then the decision to accept and pursue the development of autonomous armed aircraft becomes an imperative because the advantages an opponent would gain against human controlled aircraft are too great to ignore.
The concept of [autonomous combat aircraft] is too dangerous to our current thinking to ignore forever, says Capt. Byrnes. “The standard rules of the arms race apply: if a rival succeeds first, then our failure would be judged by the words of our own airpower theorists. Just as air superiority is a prerequisite for combined-arms victory, so will tactically autonomous UCAVs (or a novel measure to counter them) become a prerequisite for the survival of fleets of human-inhabited air vehicles.”
Byrnes concludes by saying “In a technology-dependent service, the cycle of invention, skepticism, resistance, and adaptation continues—all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.” That may indeed be true, but when it has happened before it did not bring with it the threat that those systems we invented could turn upon their inventors.
Click the link to read “Nightfall, Machine Autonomy in Air-to-Air Combat,” by Capt. Michael W. Byrnes, USAF

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