17 July 2009
Air Force Plans for All-Drone Future
By David Axe
It was without much fanfare that the Air Force published its new Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan on Wednesday. But the low-key launch of the study, which aims to sketch out drone development through the year 2047, belies the radical future the air service envisions. In an acronym-dense 82 pages, the Air Force explains how ever-larger and more sophisticated flying robots could eventually replace every type of manned aircraft in its inventory — everything from speedy, air-to-air fighters to lumbering bombers and tankers.
Emphasis on “might” and “could..” While revealing how robots can equal the capabilities of traditional planes, the Air Force is careful to emphasize that an all-bot air fleet is not inevitable. Rather, drones will represent “alternatives” to manned planes, in pretty much every mission category.
Some of the missions tapped for possible, future drones are currently considered sacrosanct for human pilots. Namely: dogfighting and nuclear bombing. Drones “are unlikely to replace the manned aircraft for air combat missions in the policy-relevant future,” Manjeet Singh Pardesi wrote in Air & Space Power Journal, just four years ago. Dogfighting was considered too fluid, too fast, for a drone’s narrow “situational awareness.” As for nuclear bombing: “Many aviators, in particular, believe that a ‘man in the loop’ should remain an integral part of the nuclear mission because of the psychological perception that there is a higher degree of accountability and moral certainty with a manned bomber,” Adam Lowther explained in Armed Forces Journal, in June.
Despite this, the Air Force identifies a future “MQ-Mc” Unmanned Aerial System for dogfighting, sometime after 2020. The MQ-Mc will also handle “strategic attack,” a.k.a nuke bombing. Less controversial is the conjectural MQ-L, a huge drone that could fill in for today’s tankers and transports.
But just because a drone could replace a manned plane, doesn’t necessarily mean it definitely will. “We do not envision replacing all Air Force aircraft with UAS,” Col. Eric Mathewson told Danger Room by email. “We do plan on considering UAS as alternatives to traditionally manned aircraft across a broad spectrum of Air Force missions … but certainly not all.” In other words, in coming years drones might be able to do everything today’s manned planes can do — technically speaking. But the Air Force still might find good reasons — moral, financial or otherwise — to keep people in some cockpits.
The Flight Plan represents a new twist in a heated debate raging in Congress over the Pentagon’s 3,000-strong fighter force. The legislature is split over whether to fund more F-22 fighters — a move that could draw a veto from President Barack Obama. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has long favored drone development over buying more manned fighters, and in May Joint Chiefs chair Admiral Mike Mullen predicted Gates’ position would win out, over the long term. “There are those that see [the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter] as the last manned fighter,” Mullen said. “I’m one that’s inclined to believe that.” General Atomics, which makes the popular Predator line of drones, underscored Mullen’s comment by unveiling its new, faster “Predator C,” pictured.
If Flight Plan proves an accurate predictor, it’s not just manned fighters (maybe) headed for extinction, but (maybe) nuclear bombers, transports, tankers … nearly all human-occupied military planes.