The F-35 needs competition—perhaps from drones, entrepreneur Elon Musk told leaders at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in February. Photo: Mike Tsukamoto/staff
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‘The Fighter Jet Era Has Passed’

April 1, 2020

Elon Musk to USAF: Autonomous drones are the future.

With six words, Elon Musk sent a shudder throughout the great hall in which thousands of Airmen and aerospace industry officials had gathered to hear his comments at the conclusion of AFA’s annual Air Warfare Symposium in February.

“The fighter jet era has passed.”

First came a moment of silence, then a rolling murmur. Reporters tweeted. Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, seated in the front row, sat up straight, then leaned in to hear what followed. The rumble died down.

“Locally autonomous drone warfare,” Musk added, “is where the future will be.” Then he said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, because this is dangerous, but it’s simply what will occur.”

Musk also told Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, in a lengthy on-stage interview that Lockheed Martin’s F-35 would benefit from a competitive challenger.

“The competitor should be a drone fighter plane that’s remote controlled by a human, but with its maneuvers augmented by autonomy,” Musk said later that day via Twitter. “The F-35 would have no chance against it.”

Will I still want to replace [F-16s] with F-35s? Or will I start cutting in something else, like Elon talked about?

Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mike Holmes

Musk has long been known for bold and dramatic promises. He swore his Tesla car company would produce 500,000 cars per year in 2018, and barely hit half that number. He promised fully autonomous cars, but despite effective self-driving capabilities, has yet to achieve that vision. And he announced he had the funding to take Tesla private in 2018, only to get sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Yet, Musk has also proven to be a visionary, creating a market for electric cars with Tesla and a viable space launch vendor with SpaceX.

His comments underscore his predilection for sweeping predictions, as well as a long-standing tension between backers of manned and unmanned aircraft and the rapid advance of Air Force concepts for drone warfare.

He’s hardly alone. Advocates for unmanned and autonomous systems have trumpeted the end of manned aircraft for more than a decade, even as the Air Force has brought online its newest—and some suggest last—manned fighter jet, the F-35, which will remain a centerpiece of its combat aviation forces for the foreseeable future. Air Force leaders argue it is more beneficial to keep a person in the cockpit because the algorithms that would let an aircraft think on its own aren’t sufficiently mature yet—not to mention the ethical dilemmas that come with waging war without a human present.

“Qualified fighter pilots must be able to master highly aggressive, three-dimensional maneuvering at rates exceeding twice the speed of sound in a highly dynamic battlespace, operate highly sophisticated mission equipment, and face adversaries doing everything in their power to kill them,” Doug Birkey, executive director of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, wrote in a recent op-ed. “The distant promise of autonomy must not be confused with meeting the clear and present threats of today and tomorrow.”

But even the four-star general in charge of sending fighters into battle acknowledged that the businessman had a point. The Air Force will need manned fighters and bombers for a long time, but will run more and more experiments to try out other options, Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mike Holmes said March 4.

ACC’s fighter roadmap charts a 30-year path forward, and the next addition to the fleet may not be a conventional fighter. Rather, the Air Force is trying to define a requirement around a capability instead of around a specific sort of platform.

“What is that going to do to the missions that we’ve been doing with fighters as we work through into the future?” Holmes said.

For now, the best option is to continue replacing fighters with fighters—like continuing to add F-35s and bringing on the updated, fly-by-wire F-15EX as F-15Cs age out of service.

“The next decision point I have is when … the Block 30 and older F-16s, when they need to be replaced, what am I going to replace them with? I want to work to do the experimentation to answer that question,” Holmes said. “Will I still want to replace them all with F-35s or will I start cutting in something else, like Elon talked about, or like [Air Force acquisition chief] Will Roper and I are discussing?”

Holmes and Roper have advocated for a rolling series of rapidly developed combat aircraft under what’s been dubbed the “new Century Series,” a variation on what the Air Force achieved from the late 1950s through the 1960s with the first Century Series planes that spanned the F-100 through the F-117.

An advanced aircraft office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is helping tackle that question in bite-size pieces. Instead of pursuing one singular Next-Generation Air Dominance solution, the Air Force wants industry to pump out experiments under the Century Series initiative. Each design might yield as many as 100 planes, breaking new ground—or failing at relatively low cost and risk.

For the foreseeable future, however, both manned and unmanned platforms will be in the mix. F-35s may be the “quarterback” in combat, calling the plays, but the rest of the team will include remotely piloted and manned platforms. Adding autonomy into combat is a harder problem than it may seem.

“We’ve done really well at teaching some [artificial intelligence] machines to play complicated games,” Holmes said. “But they’re playing games where they know 100 percent of the information. When you’re playing a game where you have uncertainty and you don’t know everything, then there’s still a role for people to play, whether that’s in the cockpit of a fighter or whether it’s in the command and control center.”

Even as the Pentagon and industry make strides in unmanned technology development, the ability to take direction from fighters is often at the core of those ideas.

Four years ago, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin partnered on a demonstration of manned-unmanned teaming using F-16s, where the company said the experimental drone “autonomously [reacted] to a dynamic threat environment during an air-to-ground strike mission.” More recently, the Navy and Boeing proved they could use one E/A-18G Growler to control two others.

In 2018, the Air Force Research Laboratory mounted a “moonshot” effort to develop a fully autonomous fighter drone within 18 months, with no public results so far. The Air Force’s “Skyborg” program similarly seeks an attritable, artificial intelligence-powered wingman aircraft that could accompany fighter jets into combat to assist with a variety of missions. It could also act as a communications gateway to let platforms with different data-sharing software “talk” to each other.

In contrast, current remotely piloted assets such as the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk follow a preprogrammed path through the sky and rely on human operators to make decisions during strike missions and when taking off and landing.

To Musk’s credit, understanding of how unmanned aircraft could be used is evolving. The next generation of drones may look more like a fighter than they do the Reaper or Global Hawk and will be purpose-built for “great power competition” that requires them to be sturdier and smarter, wield new firepower, and handle more complex missions than the current inventory can take on.

For example, MQ-9 manufacturer General Atomics in Orlando displayed concept art of the “Defender,” a modified version of its earlier Avenger aircraft equipped with air-to-air missiles. The company argues Defender could protect large, slow platforms like tankers or big-wing intelligence aircraft from attack.

Still, even the most advanced unmanned aircraft are only capable of rudimentary roles compared to today’s fighter jets, said Arthur Holland Michel, a founder and co-director of Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone. He envisions autonomous resupply could be possible in the next five years, but dogfighting won’t be possible until long after because it is so complicated.

Once the technology has matured to tell an aircraft where to go, how to react to a changing environment, and what actions are appropriate, it will still take time to convert the Air Force’s very human fighter pilot culture into one that embraces drones as equals or superiors.

Fully swapping fighters for drones would require a “radical and comprehensive U-turn” in strategy, aircraft development, and culture, Holland Michel argues.

“The future, as far as I can see it, looks like a massively complex ecosystem of manned and unmanned systems working in very tight networked coordination,” he said. “There will be lots of unmanned ‘wingmen,’ lots of automated target cueing by forward unmanned hunter assets, lots of remote weapons releases through [manned-unmanned teaming], and even lots of swarming for roles like [suppression of enemy air defenses], eventually.”

There could come a day when planes no longer need humans. It’s not today.

9 Takeaways from Musk’s Message to the Air and Space Forces

Elon Musk is known for mic-drop moments and outlandish predictions. He’s also proven most of his critics wrong, developing a cult following while disrupting the space industry with his SpaceX launch business and the automotive industry with his hot-selling Teslas. Here’s what he had to say to Air Force and Space Force members at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium Feb. 28:

On competition for space: “If the United States does not seek great innovations in space, it will be second in space, as sure as night follows day.”

On the potential for interplanetary spaceflight: “We can go a long way towards making Starfleet real and making these sort of utopian or semi-utopian futures real, but it will definitely require radical innovation. One can’t get there by incrementally innovating expendable boosters.”

On reusable spacecraft: “It’s absolutely fundamental to achieve full reusability in access to space. This is the Holy Grail of space.”

On Lockheed Martin and the F-35: “There should be a competitor to F-35. … It’s not good to have only one provider.”

On high-speed, long-distance travel: “You could actually do point-to-point on Earth to go long distances and be much better than aircraft. Basically, just think of ICBM, minus the nuke, add land. It’s sort of in the option package: Uncheck nuke, and then add landing system. That’s definitely going to get you wherever you want to go the fastest. … That’s going to be pretty exciting.”

On how to incentivize the workforce for innovation: “If somebody is completely failing to innovate … then they should either not be promoted or exited. You’ll get innovation real fast.”

On building spacecraft: “At this point, I think designing a rocket is trivial. Just trivial. … The making of even one is hard. The making of a production line that builds and launches many is extremely hard. The next level beyond that would be creating a fully reusable system and having that be in volume production and volume launch. That’s super, super hard.”

On intellectual property (IP) rights: “The real way I think you actually achieve intellectual property protection is by innovating fast enough. If your rate of innovation is high, then you don’t need to worry about protecting the IP because other companies will be copying something that you did years ago.”

On developing the Space Force: “I think there should be a new uniform. Cool uniforms, cool spaceships. … Warp drive and teleportation, probably not—but big spaceships that can go far places? Definitely. That can be done.”