Transitioning from Human Pilots to Drones


Air Force photo

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles is not a new phenomenon for the U.S. military. To the contrary, the Pentagon has been developing this type of platform as early as the 1990s. During this period, substantial government investment occurred, leading to numerous prominent systems that are now essential for U.S. national security.

These platforms proved to be invaluable tools for the U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only did these drones provide options to exercise lethal force, but they were also essential in enabling successful intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

While promoting unmanned aerial vehicles, the United States continues to invest substantial resources in manned aircraft to ensure continued air superiority. This is reflected in the sizable contracts awarded to manned aircraft programs, along with commitments to outfit allies with specific platforms.

Despite this commitment, some human-piloted platforms continue to encounter serious issues. For example, numerous pilots have experienced respiratory complications while using current generation fighter aircraft. This is particularly dangerous as it can result in potential incapacitation of the pilot if not quickly rectified.

Recognizing the importance of addressing this problem, the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee requested a full investigation. However, this single issue is far from the only problem plaguing manned platforms within the military.

In recognition of this, the Pentagon should consider whether unmanned aerial vehicles should play a larger role in future military operations. Or, if the Air Force is adamant about maintaining the manned aerial vehicles, it should inquire about what the platforms can do to reduce the physical stress on the pilot.

Recently, a concept was unveiled that detailed a “crewed-uncrewed” platform to allow control of sophisticated airborne drones, equipped with sensors and fire capability, to fighter pilots in flight.

Such a plan would allow the military to begin a transition toward UAV-dominated air forces. Not only would such a transition provide greater safety to the airmen and women who serve in the armed services, but it would allow platforms to achieve greater performance.

This system would be a part of what the Air Force calls collaborative combat aircraft, which will be part of the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems. The purpose of this initiative is to surround a single manned aerial vehicle with “loyal wingmen” drones to allow faster and more efficient execution of the kill chain.

The United States cannot afford to postpone this evolution in combat as it has already witnessed how UAVs have impacted modern battlefields. The 2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example, demonstrated how unmanned platforms can dominate and overwhelm traditional platforms used by conventional armies.

Azerbaijan’s drone fleet was able to target Armenian forces at a fraction of the cost of those targeted platforms. Using such a tactic allowed Azerbaijan to achieve a swift victory, but one that could not be achieved without the use of subtle, small drones. By weakening Armenia’s defenses with drone strikes, Azerbaijan could advance with its own conventional forces.

The United States can learn from this conflict. Specifically, it showed the unique threat drones pose to the enemy consisting primarily of conventional forces. Should the nation find a need to support allies like NATO or Taiwan in conflict, it could provide low-cost drones to overwhelm an enemy.

Drones could either be used as an effort to support allies without having to commit conventional forces or be part of a combined arms approach. In either case, the United States is currently exploring ways to diversify its drone forces, which will allow it to replace certain combat roles like bomber escorts.

The key aspect of drones is that they are expendable, unlike the latest fighter aircraft which have an average cost of approximately $80 million per unit.

Since the U.S. military, or any nation’s military, is currently unprepared to completely replace all combat platforms with unmanned or autonomous platforms, the United States should not abandon its manned aircraft altogether.

Instead, it should invest its military funding and resources into fixing pilot-centered issues along with new drone platforms. This would allow for a smooth transition into Next Generation Air Dominance. Admittedly, the drone “wingman” systems are still in development and will require extensive testing before the U.S. services can commit to such a revolutionary combat platform.

The Defense Department should focus on maintaining the strengths and unique characteristics of the current manned platforms while insulating the human pilots from strenuous physical limitations. Current fighter aircraft are certainly state-of-the-art but may better serve their purpose when matched with unmanned and autonomous systems.

This transition will not happen in the near future, so the Pentagon possesses adequate time to address the various issues imposed on human pilots. Furthermore, contractors will continue developing the drone platforms, sensor equipment and autonomous computing that will allow for the future of warfare to take the next step. The United States will have to find a way to balance its commitment between use of manned and unmanned platforms to lead its future combat forces.

David Winter is an NDIA junior policy fellow.

Topics: Air Power, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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