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Will piloted fighters ever go away?

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Will UCAVs ever completely replace manned fighters?

  • Fighter pilots will be gone in a few decades

    Votes: 3 10.7%
  • UCAVs will play their part, but so will manned fighters

    Votes: 22 78.6%
  • UCAVs won't be accepted as frontline combat weapons

    Votes: 3 10.7%
  • What's a UCAV?

    Votes: 0 0.0%

  • Total voters


Active member
Jan 5, 2002
Kind of a follow-on here from an earlier post about UCAVs. I'm curious as to what people on the board think the long-term future of the fighter will be. We've got the F-22 and F-35 on the drawing board with some (like Sec. Roche) thinking about an "FB-22" - there are those (mostly non-pilots) who believe this may be the last generation of manned fighters. Clearly, the state of military aviation fourty years from now is a hard one to predict, but what do people here think of the possibility of no more human shooters?

My own $.02 would be that while UCAVs will enter the force and will eventually take a sizeable share of the most dangerous missions, pilots will always be in at least some fighter cockpits. I base this on the fact that there are basically two means of controlling a UAV - by some sort of remote control (like the Predator), or completely autonomously. With a remote control, I would think our opponents (particuarly our formidable and technologically advanced ones) would make a high priority of developing a way of jamming or even hijacking C2 transmissions. With a totally autonomous UCAV, there are some pretty hard questions about both the ability of a computer (even one decades from now) to reliably make decisions about the political and moral challenges inherent to armed conflict. On top of that, consider the "finite state" in which a computer works. It is an analytical machine and therefore cannot be creative. A pilot however, has the potential to improvise outside of their previous experience and react to the unknown. If this weren't true, nobody would ever dogfight in a simulator and come out alive. Unless a computer can be developed which is truly intelligent (and as yet, nobody has come remotely close to figuring out how to make an intelligent and sensient being out of silicon), we cannot resolve these issues.

Okay, enough of my rant, I'm curious as to what people on the board think. And no, I simply can't picture the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs hoisting shots of Jeremiah Weed on Friday night at roll call. Kill MiGs.
A UCAV can do anything a combat pilot can, but it can't, and IMHO will never be able to, do everything a combat pilot can.

The trend for combat aircraft is multi-mission. The Hornet E/F, F-22, JSF...are all fighter/attack. They're even looking at jamming and AEW applications for some of them. What we're finding is that even with whiz bang weapons and sensors there are still too many time critical decisions, some of which involve looking out the window, for someone who isn't integrated into the weapon system, i.e. sitting in it, to process and act upon. In fact, as we combine missions, e.g. strike and EW in the Hornet F with AESA radar, we finding that you need two people in there to manage the mission load.

Another factor: the first rule of combat is that the plan lasts only until the first engagement with the enemy. After that it's adapt and overcome. Obviously the better the plan the easier to adapt, but I haven't seen anything on the drawing board that can adapt as well as a swiveling set of eyeballs with an experienced brain behind them.

So...we will increasingly see UCAVs that do specific missions, e.g. precision strike, SEAD. But I think at least for our lifetimes there will be manned (and womanned) aircraft flying the complex missions.
Ditto the above post. There are some politicians, "think tank" specialists, and engineers that feel otherwise, but I can only imagine that their "perfect plan" would go to Hell in a handbasket the first time the enemy pulls a left turn on them and the computers locked up not knowing what to do.

That, and I think the first time a UCAV levels a hospital by mistake, will make those guys think about the possibility of having all unmanned combat aircraft.
Thanks for the responses - I've just got a couple follow-on questions here. For the person (there's only one as of 26 JUL) who responded that they think manned fighters will be on their way out, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts as to why you think that. The other question is that having looked at a few dozen hits from yahoo about UCAV proposals, the few sites I saw from analysis groups (similar to the Rand Corp.) don't seem to address the concerns we've brought up here. Are we missing something, or is the UCAV arguement reminiscent of the pre-Vietnam "dogfights are a thing of the past" and pre-Desert Storm "A-10s are relics" lines of thinking?
Here's a *.pdf link to what's probably the best paper with an objective look at future UCAV capability and limitations I've seen.


The limitations portion goes into what I've been saying on this board and others - that the C2 link is what could be a critical weakness if it were to be exploited. The only reason it hasn't yet is with other systems, jamming is pesky but not debilitating.
Puters vs Pilots

I've heard similar talks about puters one day replacing the pilots on civ aircraft. I'm no pro on this topic, but I just can't see it completely happening. I just don't want to imagine what will happen when an on-board computer experiences something similar to a General Protection Fault like you see in Windows all too often. Granted, military flight puters are much more advanced, but puters are only as perfect as their creators. When I see something like an F-16 over my head, it's very comforting to know that there's a military professional on-board in charge of all that firepower and not some electronic brain doing all the dirty work.

Just my 2 cents.

One more point...

Good points in all the previous posts. There is one more factor...cost. UAVs/UCAVs are less expensive than manned fighters, but will that always be true if they become multi-mission and/or truly autonomous? We still haven't found the solution to a completely self-guiding automobile yet, and that's only a two-dimension, non-combat role. Plus, UAVs right now aren't cheap! So, the cost/benefit equation may change as the wanted/projected ability of U(C)AVs evolves. Personally, considering how many glitches I've seen on modern CPU dominated aircraft, I'm really leery of a completely autonomous one that is armed! The current issue of Discover has an interesting article on the Global Hawk, but I think the author and the Global Hawk operator quoted are too optimistic. Makes for an interesting read though.

My .02

I hope not. I think it is ridiculous, despite the great technology, to start creating machines that take jobs from real people. Machines that help, well that is something else. The latest fighters are still manned obviously, just better equipment, making the job easier. I do not think that anytime soon, if ever, there will be unmanned fighters. In my opinion there is too much that could go wrong with that concept.

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