Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Air Force of the Future

The U.S. Air Force is under growing pressure to build fewer of its next fighter, the F-35. The air force has been ordered to reexamine the future needs for F-35s during the current Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). This is a planning exercise that takes into account all the nations military and civil resources as applied to a list of potential opponents and in wars that could break out in the next decade. This analysis is used to determine what weapons will be needed in the future. The QDR also has to take into account the "guidance" from the president and Congress. The air force believes that a more optimistic (about world peace) government will provide guidance that indicates a need for fewer F-35s (currently the air force plans to buy 1,763.)

Another problem is that many people, including some generals in the air force, believe that its next generation fighter will not have a pilot on board. Many air force generals admit that the F-35 is probably the last manned fighter. But some believe that the F-35 will be facing stiff competition from pilotless fighters before F-35 production is scheduled to end in 2034.

UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) are not particularly popular with many U.S. Air Force leaders, 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 cockpit.