The Unmanned Wingman

Why drones will never replace fighter jocks.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Smevog/Released
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Smevog/Released

Imagine this scenario in the not-too-distant future: Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea have been building for months. After exhausting all diplomatic options, the president orders an airstrike against a highly defended enemy weapons depot. Four U.S. fighter jets launch from an aircraft carrier operating at an undisclosed location at sea. They effortlessly interact as one lethal unit, penetrating heavily guarded airspace, defending against multiple surface-to-air missile launches, releasing precision ordnance, and destroying their target. But the enemy air force scrambles fighter aircraft in an attempt to intercept and shoot down the four jets as they make their way out of the country’s airspace. An airborne melee ensues and enemy pilots shoot down one of the four fighters. Only three surviving aircraft return to the aircraft carrier.

That night, however, the newswires remain silent. There are no reports of a potential prisoner of war. No government vehicles solemnly drive up to the house of the pilot’s next of kin. The next day, there are no videos of Americans being paraded through town for propaganda purposes by the enemy regime. The downed fighter jet was unmanned.

What was once the stuff of science fiction is now only years away from reality. And the increasing capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles are undeniably awe-inspiring. The historic achievements of recent months clearly indicate that unmanned fighter aircraft will play a major role in the future of air combat. In June 2013, the X-47B achieved the first arrested landing of an unmanned aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier, and a few months later the first flight of an unmanned, remotely operated F-16 occurred at Tyndall Air Force Base. But let’s not get carried away.

Human pilots physically located in an aircraft still represent an infinitely more adaptable platform and are irreplaceable when considering the high-threat environments of future wars.

Among many futurists, the misguided conception that unmanned or remotely piloted air vehicles will inevitably replace manned aircraft has become commonplace. In truth, however, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will not replace manned fighter aircraft. They will empower them.

Like energy production or personal investments, air combat strategic decisions demand a series of calculated tradeoffs, and the best policy is to maintain a balanced portfolio of options. To support as many options as possible, the development of future air warfare assets should focus on the seamless interoperability of manned and unmanned aerial aircraft.

Drones have proven their utility as surveillance assets with a limited precision-strike capability, but to operate effectively, they require a completely permissive air environment devoid of any threats. Aloft in uncontested skies, their slow speed and endurance are invaluable. They loiter over targets for hours and then strike at the perfect moment. America’s complete air dominance made UAVs a perfect fit over Afghanistan and Pakistan. Flying in contested skies, however, these very attributes render them completely defenseless targets for the most basic air defense systems, as evidenced by their limited presence in the skies over Libya during the 2011 conflict. Recently, the far more lethal Syrian air defense systems have removed the use of UAVs from serious consideration.

As such, assuming the success of contemporary drones in future wars, based on the last decade of impunity with which UAVs have loitered over foreign territory, is a strategic error. Any future conventional conflict will likely occur over areas that are highly protected by sophisticated air defense systems, creating a hazardous environment for all aircraft. In deadlier skies, manned aircraft are uniquely equipped to defend themselves due to the one attribute that not even the most advanced unmanned aircraft will ever possess: a human being in the cockpit. Manned fighter aircraft can instantly adapt, maneuver, and defend themselves.

In considering an air war, an advanced aerial threat environment increases the likelihood of within-visual-range air combat, often referred to as "dog-fighting." The ever-persistent fog of war, coupled with complex target identification requirements, hinders the effective use of beyond-visual-range capabilities. As such, close-range dog-fighting may be the only way to complete particular future missions.

Dog-fighting presents the most dynamic aerial environment conceivable. Survival requires both proactive and instantly reactive three-dimensional aircraft maneuvering. Success requires critically outthinking an adversary while making split-second decisions, executing demanding maneuvers under crushing g-loads, and firing weapons at an enemy. At present, these are critical tasks that only pilots physically engaged in the battle can do. Distantly controlled unmanned aircraft lack these capabilities. If ever caught in a dog-fight, they transition from lethal airborne assets to defenseless targets.

From a pilot’s perspective, the perfect wingman exists as an extension of the lead pilot, dutifully and silently following the lead aircraft, launching weapons and enhancing situational awareness when commanded, and autonomously completing the basic administrative skills of taking off, flying formation, and landing. This is the future of UAVs. In the near term — until fully fighter-capable UAVs can be designed, tested, and produced — modern fighters, such as the F-18 Super Hornet, F-15E Strike Eagle, and F-16 Viper, can be converted into "optionally manned" aircraft, which can be flown traditionally by a pilot in the cockpit or quickly configured to fly without a pilot onboard. With this capability, a traditional fighter pilot in a modern fighter aircraft may lead and control up to three UAV wingmen in the exact same type of aircraft in a traditional tactical formation.

With the development of unmanned fighter aircraft that can be controlled by an airborne pilot physically close by, one pilot could lead a lethal package of four fighter aircraft to complete missions that UAVs alone simply couldn’t. By remotely operating his wingmen, the lead pilot would be able to adapt to the tactical demands of the battle and execute the mission at the speed of thought, seamlessly commanding the simultaneous operation of the entire flight of four. The heat-of-the-moment decisions could be made by the pilot in the battle, using his infinitely reactive brain to act in precise, real-time coordination with his unmanned wingmen — in stark contrast to a remotely located UAV operator who cannot react at the pace of air-to-air combat. With one pilot that can simultaneously control and employ four UAV wingmen, these drones become not a liability or a hindrance, but force multipliers.

Given the constraints of distantly controlled UAVs, the next phase of combat aircraft development should focus on this exact formula: blending manned and unmanned combat aviation to capitalize on the advantages of both. Particularly, the capability to network and control multiple UAVs from the cockpit of a manned aircraft presents the natural starting point for UAV interoperability. In the role of support aircraft or "wingman," unmanned aircraft possess unlimited potential to empower pilots by adding critical numbers, acting as decoys, multiplying the amount of weapons available, and dispersing the risk of a human pilot being shot down.

A cohesive unit of four fighter aircraft has historically proven to be the most effective basic unit of an airborne combat force. The manned/unmanned flight of four will be a supremely valuable asset for aerial tacticians: a proven combat element able to instantly adapt, integrate, and execute complex mission plans, maximizing manned aircraft flexibility, and expertly leveraging unmanned aircraft advantages.

Unmanned fighter aircraft will not eliminate the need for human fighter pilots. Rather, future unmanned systems will exist to operate as an extension of fighter pilots, enhancing survivability, combat effectiveness, and lethality.

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