I've been critical of some of the Air Force's publications in the
past, so I am pleased to report that there is a terrific article in the May-June
issue of Air & Space Power Journal.
In the article, "Nightfall: Machine Autonomy in Air-to-Air
Combat," Capt. Michael Byrnes argues that the capabilities of autonomous
fighter drones are increasing so quickly that sending manned aircraft against them
will "resemble the mismatch depicted in The
Charge of the Light Brigade." This is because, he says, computers
increasingly are able to do everything in the combat cockpit that humans can
do, except they will be doing it "more quickly and with more precision." And
the computers will do it inside aircraft that are small, fast, and difficult to
detect -- not just radar-evading, but radar-bending.
In addition, he notes, drones are cheaper -- not just to build,
but to maintain. They don't degrade in readiness as quickly as humans do. They
don't require medical care, retirement benefits, or housing for the families.
Byrnes is a bit prone to military jargon like "showstopper," but
the natural writer in him comes out in sentences such as these: "Aviators instinctively
see the airplane as a machine whose purpose is to fly rather than a machine that
flies to serve its purpose.... RPAs and UCAVs are computers with airframes
strapped to them, not the other way around."
Underscoring the mammoth task facing the Air Force's leadership,
he notes that in 2007 one-third of Air Force pilots surveyed said that they
would rather leave the Air Force than operate drones. Perhaps because of the
cultural resistance in the Air Force, Byrnes notes in a brave aside, the Navy "will soon have far
more impressive UAVs than the Air Force."
This is one of the best articles I have seen in a military journal
in a long time. It actually made me reconsider some (not all) of my remarks
about the lack of value provided by the Air Force educational establishment. If
they are encouraging this kind of critical thinking, good for them. (And if
not, why not?)