- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I’ve been critical of some of the Air Force’s publications in the past, so I am pleased to report that there is a terrific article in the May-June issue of Air & Space Power Journal.
In the article, "Nightfall: Machine Autonomy in Air-to-Air Combat," Capt. Michael Byrnes argues that the capabilities of autonomous fighter drones are increasing so quickly that sending manned aircraft against them will "resemble the mismatch depicted in The Charge of the Light Brigade." This is because, he says, computers increasingly are able to do everything in the combat cockpit that humans can do, except they will be doing it "more quickly and with more precision." And the computers will do it inside aircraft that are small, fast, and difficult to detect — not just radar-evading, but radar-bending.
In addition, he notes, drones are cheaper — not just to build, but to maintain. They don’t degrade in readiness as quickly as humans do. They don’t require medical care, retirement benefits, or housing for the families.
Byrnes is a bit prone to military jargon like "showstopper," but the natural writer in him comes out in sentences such as these: "Aviators instinctively see the airplane as a machine whose purpose is to fly rather than a machine that flies to serve its purpose…. RPAs and UCAVs are computers with airframes strapped to them, not the other way around."
Underscoring the mammoth task facing the Air Force’s leadership, he notes that in 2007 one-third of Air Force pilots surveyed said that they would rather leave the Air Force than operate drones. Perhaps because of the cultural resistance in the Air Force, Byrnes notes in a brave aside, the Navy "will soon have far more impressive UAVs than the Air Force."
This is one of the best articles I have seen in a military journal in a long time. It actually made me reconsider some (not all) of my remarks about the lack of value provided by the Air Force educational establishment. If they are encouraging this kind of critical thinking, good for them. (And if not, why not?)