This week’s announcement that the naval variant of the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft is being cancelled and redesigned as a tanker is a small step in the right direction. You can read the article here about the program’s change of direction “Carrier-based unmanned jet is DOD budget loser.” The idea of unmanned fighter is long overdue to be consigned to the dustbin of history. The design of such an airplane, while sounds like a winner, is actually one of the worst ideas in fighter aviation. The idea that at some point in the future an unmanned fighter will rule the skies can only be fathomed by someone who understands nothing of fighter operations and air combat.
There are a number of problems that go in hand with having an unmanned fighter/bomber combat aircraft system (UCAS). First and foremost, the pilot in the fighters of today is not just there to push buttons; rather he/she is there to use their creativity to adjust the initial battle plan to the situation in the air. War, unlike what some may believe, is one of the most unpredictable events and only human mind can provide the creativity needed for victory. That is, unless artificial intelligence is developed; in which case it could rival human creativity. But then, why would it fight for us? I’ve mentioned this in my previous posts, that the idea that you can force a thinking machine to fight for you is ludicrous. So assuming the UCAS would be a robot, not an AI, it would have a number of significant disadvantages over human fighter aircraft.
How would such a system find other enemy aircraft or ground targets? In the real world, there are a number of issues that would limit its ability to do so including concealment camouflage and deception (CCD) and electronic counter measures (ECM). In any combat scenario a robotic aircraft would have to figure out who and where the enemy was without having 100% of information available due to the fog of war, CCD, and ECM. The same would apply to the unmanned bomber aircraft. While it would be pretty easy to program it to fly to a point in space and release weapons on a set of coordinates, what happens if the target it was programed against is not there or it can’t find it. It would have to adapt. As such, it would need human touch and intuition. That could be provided by long range datalink. However, those could be jammed by an adaptive adversary, in which case the unmanned aircraft would have to rely on their programming to succeed. And as mentioned before, no program can be more creative than a human, except possibly AI.
Air combat would be especially difficult for a robotic aircraft to handle. What most people don’t understand is that air combat is not just aircraft shooting missiles at each other to see who gets hit first. It is an art that has certain tactics which are adjusted by the pilots in unexpected and creative ways based on the changing combat situation. This is only possible because of the inherent human creativity. Such creativity cannot be programed into a robot. As such, the fighter aircraft will always have a thinking pilot in it if we want to have the most lethal Air Force in the world. Every air combat situation is different and impossible to model to a 100% certainty.
However, there is still a future for the unmanned aircraft in the armed forces. Surveillance is one of the tasks it is ideally suited for. Another is listed in the article mentioned in the first paragraph, air refueling. Yet another place an unmanned airplane is a great fit is cargo transportation. What do all of these tasks have in common? They don’t required human creativity and ingenuity to succeed. Even now the pilots flying these missions spend 99% of their time just monitoring the systems and the other 1% taking off and landing. Really, when you think about it, all of the mundane and unchanging tasks can be automated with robots. What can’t be replaced are those tasks requiring human mind to succeed and air combat is definitely one of those areas. As such, it is good to see the Navy recognizing the limitations of the UCAS and transitioning the program in the direction where it could actually work, air refueling. A step in the right direction.