Military Luddites & Meandering Rhetoric

Foreign Policy posted on Thursday an article by two Navy pilots titled, “The Unmanned Wingman (Why drones will never replace fighter jocks)”. It’s a silly article.*

The headline alone should give any reader pause.** Never is a long time, and there is a long history of arguments being made which assert the primacy of humans over machines, only for humans to be supplanted shortly after. But who knows? Maybe there is an excellent reason to suppose drones will never replace fighter jocks. Let’s dive into the article and find out!

The authors begin by describing what seems to be a pretty nice scenario if you’re the U.S. military: tensions in the Mediterranean region require a military response, and a mission in “heavily guarded airspace” is carried out with the loss of one fighter out of four. But because the fighters are drones:

…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.

So far, so good. The benefits of fighter-style UAS look pretty unassailable, and even better, we might get to enjoy them soon. Confusingly though, we’re then given the claim:

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.

Huh? They’ve just described a scenario in a high-threat environment, the outcome of which seems significantly improved by the lack of a human pilot located physically in an aircraft – no American pilot was killed or captured despite the loss of an aircraft. Given that, there had better be a damn good reason to keep pilots in the cockpit. If there is one, it doesn’t show up in the rest of the article.

First we get a spurious argument about air supremacy as a prerequisite for drone usage. Air supremacy is undoubtedly necessary for drone usage, if the drones you want to use are ReapersPredators, or any of the other UAS intended to be (as the authors themselves write), “surveillance assets with a limited precision-strike capability.” But it’s quite clear in the scenario we’re given at the start of the article that the hypothetical aircraft in question are not loitering surveillance drones, they’re unmanned fighters. This line of reasoning tells us nothing about the utility or lack thereof in eliminating humans from the cockpit of a fighter jet.

Next we’re told that in hazardous, contested airspace, even unmanned fighters (as opposed to unmanned surveillance assets) will be insufficient, whereas: “Manned fighter aircraft can instantly adapt, maneuver, and defend themselves.” I mean sure, instantly enough, I guess. But in a race between a processor and a human I’m putting my money on the processor every time.

This is followed with the claim that future missions may come to rely heavily on close range dogfighting (as opposed to BVR engagements); I’m not really equipped to assess its validity, but does seem a bit strange given the relative paucity of serious dogfights in aerial combat in the last thirty years. But let’s assume the next thirty years are going to be dogfight city; it’s still not clear why you’d want to have humans in the cockpit if it could be avoided. The authors describe dogfighting thusly:

[it] 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.

Critical thinking and decision-making ability, fine. Humans are better.** But are we really to believe that humans are better than computers at handling multi-g environments, or gruelingly long missions, or at utilizing their (supposedly superior) critical thinking skills while under enormous amounts of physical stress? That seems unlikely.****

The authors’ meanderingly unhelpful argument aside, the question of whether or not we, with certain weapons systems, keep a man in the loop or not, and if so, where, is an important one. On the question of whether or not there should be a man in the loop at all, with fighter aircraft the answer seems unambiguously to be yes. Tasks like taking off, landing, and even long stretches of flight could be conducted on autopilot. But current technology still does not allow weapons systems to autonomously make targeting decisions with the same efficacy as humans.*****

If we accept the presence of a man in the loop, the next question becomes where to locate him. The authors clearly think he should be in the cockpit. There is, I think, one possible argument for this; here the specific claim has to be that technology will never, or is highly unlikely to ever, be able to give a pilot sat at Nellis Air Force Base the same situational awareness in all combat scenarios that he or she would have in the cockpit of an aircraft. If that condition does not obtain, then it’s only a matter of time before we get remotely operated fighter drones.

*More interesting, I think, is the concluding discussion of manned/unmanned teaming, which is clearly a priority for military aviation in general
**In fairness to the authors, it’s entirely plausible they didn’t write it, or were too busy, you know, defending the country, to devote hours to headline selection
***Probably a lot of people would even disagree with this, but it’s less clear-cut and anyway the argument is still pretty bad even if you concede this point
****Then for the last sentence we get a delightful non sequitur that repeats the conflation of UAS generally with surveillance drone UAS specifically
*****Efficacy in both a military and a moral sense