At the dawn of aerial combat 100 years ago, World War I flying aces frequently closed to within 15 meters before firing at enemy aircraft with their machine guns. Such intimate encounters helped create a perception of pilots as skilled “knights of the air” who climbed into the cockpits of nimble aircraft to duel their opponents. But a recent report hints at a very different near future, where military pilots fly large, bomber-size aircraft loaded with missiles and command networked swarms of robotic drones.
The report, titled “Trends in Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority,” suggests future aerial combat may not look much like Tom Cruise’s dogfighting stunts from the Hollywood film Top Gun. The analysis comes from John Stillion, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and former U.S. Air Force officer who compiled statistics on “air-to-air kills” between aircraft from 1965 until 2002. His report shows that modern fighter pilots have increasingly relied on long-range sensors and missiles to destroy enemy aircraft from kilometers away. The lethal combination of sensors and missiles makes it largely unnecessary to use a fighter jet's agility to get in position for a perfect kill shot. If such technological trends continue, the ideal combat plane of the future might be a bigger, slower aircraft capable of carrying an armada of sophisticated smaller vehicles. “The heart of the analysis is the idea that, over time, the performance of sensors, networks and weapons have come to increasingly dominate air combat outcomes,” Stillion says. “It may be possible that speed and agility are becoming less valuable in air combat.”
Stillion's analysis shows how modern aerial combat has moved in this direction since the 1960s and 1970s when aircraft gained the ability to detect opponents at longer ranges and destroy them with missiles rather than guns. By 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, anti-Iraq coalition aircraft were detecting enemy planes on radar at an average range of 77 kilometers and destroying them with missiles fired from an average of more than 17.5 kilometers away. Out of 33 aerial victories, coalition aircraft only performed significant “air combat maneuvering” four times in order to get into firing position.
Today's fighter jet designs still reflect the idea of a fast, agile plane with a modern emphasis on stealth to avoid radar detection. But speed and agility come at the cost of requiring more powerful, fuel-hungry engines and stronger airframes to handle the stress of high-speed maneuvers. As a result, modern fighter aircraft have gotten heavier and can't fly as far as their predecessors. Those limitations loom as the traditional advantages of speed and agility have become less important.
The U.S. military may need a different, longer-range “air superiority” aircraft as the country pivots its activity toward the wide expanse of the Pacific, Stillion says. If his hypothesis is correct, the ideal shape of such future aircraft could resemble large modern bombers rather than new fighter jets such as the F-22 Raptor or the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The report suggests the U.S. Air Force and Navy could save “tens of billions of dollars” by merging the aircraft designs of future fighter development programs with those of long-range strike bombers. “It's a pretty revolutionary idea about airpower,” says Paul Scharre, project director for the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security who did not participate in the report.
The armed services seem split about this idea: The U.S. Navy may be ready to embrace it. During the 2015 Sea–Air–Space Exposition Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus spoke of the F-35 fighter jet as “the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.” But Gen. Mark Welsh III, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, has said that his service will still rely on fighter pilots in the cockpit for the foreseeable future.
Debates over manned versus unmanned military aircraft can overshadow the fact that today's jets and weapons are already heavily automated. Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation and author of the upcoming novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next War, says that modern fighter pilots describe their jobs as being less about “Top Gun joystick handling” and more about serving as a “battle manager” who makes top-level decisions. He added that there is already a “really fuzzy line” between cruise missiles and drones.
An ideal future mix of human and robotic talent in aerial combat would allow pilots to command the actions of many fast-reacting, tireless drones, Scharre says. Drones could also potentially provide more “bang for the buck” compared with an equal number of manned aircraft by deploying forward in combat zones for hours or even days beyond the limits of human pilot endurance.
Col. Ray O’Mara, a senior strategy advisor for the U.S. Air Force’s Air University knows firsthand about the physical toll involved in flying a fighter jet. He had two cervical discs removed from his neck and three vertebrae fused because of long-term injury caused by “pulling gs” in the cockpit of an F-15. His personal view is that the identity of fighter pilots has already been evolving since the days of World War I—and it will continue to evolve as their machines become smarter.
“In my opinion, there will be a change in the professional identity of the fighter pilot,” O'Mara says. “I would say there is going to be a radical change.”