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F-35: Last Manned Fighter?

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seems to think that may be the case.

So, what the aviation side of this is, I think, is very much focused on this change. And I think we’re at the beginning of this change. I mean, there are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter — or fighter-bomber, or jet. And I’m one of — you know, I’m one that’s inclined to believe that. I don’t know if that’s exactly right. But, this all speaks to the change that goes out, you know, many — obviously, decades, including how much unmanned we’re going to have and how it’s going to be resourced.

I’m not one inclined to believe that necessarily (at least not with the technology today). Although I did read that the Air Force will, this year for the first time, train more UAV pilots than fighter pilots, I think there will always be a role for fighter pilots in combat. Why? Because of the air superiority role. UAVs – drones if you prefer – can fulfill the close air support role, and even a tactical and strategic bombing role. But, at least with the technology we have today, I simply can’t see an unmanned “fighter” having the advantage over a manned fighter in the air superiority role.

And without air superiority, you don’t fly UAVs.

Here’s someone who agrees with Mullen:

I guess I’m with Mullen; there are currently jobs that manned warplanes can do that drones can’t perform (human pilots are more visually capable than even the best drones, for example), but a) drones are getting better, b) drones are so much cheaper, and c)taking the pilot out means that you can do a lot of funky, interesting things with an advanced airframe. This isn’t to say that the F-35 (or even the F-22) have no role; they’ll continue to be useful frames for the jobs they’re intended to do for a substantial period of time. But I don’t think there’s a next “next generation” of fighter aircraft.

Addressing b) above, things like this don’t help the manned fighter side.  But then “cheap” doesn’t always translate into “most effective” either.



22 Responses to F-35: Last Manned Fighter?

  • It’s a trade-off between the advantage of having a thinking pilot present in the aircraft versus the risk of loss of life, plus the extra maneuverability the aircraft can have if there are no g-limit restrictions. I would think that as teleoperation technology improves, the advantage of having a pilot in the aircraft over a remote pilot will decrease over time. At some point it will no longer make sense to have piloted aircraft in combat. Not sure how far away from that point we are, though.

  • If the UAVs are smaller, lighter, extremely more maneuverable and less expensive, they become expendable just like a missile or bomb. Tactics then change to swarming an enemy. 10, 20, 50 to 1 advantage for the UAVs. Even the aircraft itself can become a weapon if necessary. Kamikaze style.

    Think of the movie Independence Day, as the F-18s approach, suddenly they are swarmed by the alien fighters. So many targets that the human pilot, even with computer assist, can only focus on a few at a time and the rest of the swarm takes him down.

  • Some of the UAVs are now at the end of a pretty long communication/control link . Countermeasures that attack or jam that link aren’t an issue against the Taliban or insurgents in Iraq, but what about nations like Russia or China? Is that a non-issue?

  • We may not need manned fighters. But I take exception to the left’s spin on this. These people are not serious about the next generation of technological warfare. See, “Unmanned Fighter Aircraft (And the Left)”.

  • I spent 1967 to 1987 in the USAF as a weapon system officer in the F4.  In my career, I spent three years in the 1st Test Sq shooting air to air missiles at BQM-34 Ryan Firebee target drones and another 10 years in various line fighter squadrons.   It was great fun.
    At Edwards AFB during the early 1970s, the Systems Command had programmed computers with real-time, time-space-position information data and could actually beat a manned fighter in air combat maneuvering.
    In the 1980s at the Air Defense Weapons Center, I  managed the Gulf Range Drone Control Upgrade System (GRDCUS).  GRDCUS flies formation of unmanned fighters against manned fighters.   We droned the F100 and F106.  Now they are shooting at unmanned F4s.
    Most fighter operations facilities have signs proclaiming, “Our mission is to fly and fight, and don’t you forget it!” The end of manned fighters is a real political problem in the USAF. Technology is much more advanced today, and could easily field an air-to-air UAV, but you don’t make general commanding drones.

    UAVs have no fear, need no life support systems; they don’t drink or chase women.  What’s the fun in that?

  • “UAVs have no fear, need no life support systems; they don’t drink or chase women. What’s the fun in that?”

    They also do not need years of training to become competent at the profession. You and I both know, Arch, that it takes between 5 and 7 years before a Fighter Pilot reaches the point where he is a force to be reckoned with. I realize that is a generalization and some take longer and others shorter periods of time to get that “experienced” tag so necessary in the air speriority role, but it is not far off the mark.

    UIAVs are as “experienced” as they are ever going to be when they role off the production line. That is why for tactical and strategic ground attack roles they would be so valuable. They just need to penetrate defenses and put the bombs on the target. And if necessary, as mentioned before, they can become weapons themselves.

    But, unless sensor systems get much better (man/machine virtual interface as a future possibility), UAVs cannot perform the air superiority role to gain the command of the air so necessary in todays combat.

    The other question that hangs in the balance is if we will ever see the kind of warfare where Air Superiority is at risk. Insurgencies like what we see today in Iraq and Afghanistan tends to deny that kind of conflict but the one thing you cannot do is create an aviation force once you let it decline.

  • Relying nearly exclusively on teleoperation seems like a big Achilles Heel that if someone could exploit would be a crippling disadvantage.

  • Ditto jpm100.  If we get rid of our manned fighters, our enemies will invest heavily in ECM and anti-Sat technology, and we will lose air superiority before we ever get a UAV off the ground.

  • This whole dispute reminds me of late-1950’s fighter doctrine that resulted in the F-4 Phantom going to war without guns.  That was a big mistake.
    I think this would be, too.

  • We don’t need fighter pilots – just attack pilots.
    Remember this:  “Fighter Pilots make movies – Attack Pilots make history.”
    From a Navy A-7 driver.  “No slack in Light Attack!”

  • I remember reading science fiction stories back in the 1960’s with skies full of drones and armies of robots with just a few humans in armored suits giving orders.  Looks like that scenario is not so far fetched anymore.

  • However, besides price, an unmanned fighter would lack one weakness a normal fighter would have…  A pilot.  We can build an airframe that can take at least double what the most fit pilot in whatever outfit you want to put him in could ever survive…  A drone would be able to manuver in a way a manned bird could only ever dream about.

  • I will believe in the superiority of unmanned drones when my television signal doesn’t go to h*ll in bad weather and when I don’t get those “We are experiencing technical difficulties” messages on my screen.

  • Your opponent only has to get his countermeasures right a couple of times.
    And then, there’s industrial espionage.   It’s not like we haven’t witnessed clandestine purchases of our technologies by our enemies over the years.  You can reproduce tech, it’s harder to reproduce training and veteran pilots.
    I think you’ll always see a mix of the two for that reason, if we’re sane.

  • What exactly is the difference between an unmanned air-superiority fighter and a missile? I don’t think there’s much point in anti-air UAVs, just fire a cr@pload of ground-to-air missles with significant linger time.

    For many years now, the victor in real-world air-to-air combat has been determined by our ability to determine whether the target meets the ROE. An unarmed drone camera on the tip of a (unarmed) mach 3 missile lets us get a camera to the target in a real hurry, so that a human can make the kill decision. Having done that, there’s no real need to put a plane in the air to shoot down enemy planes, and a ground-launched missile can be quite large, pull 30gs, and be a solid-fuled rocket capable of Mach 10+ when you really need to intercept in a hurry regardless of cost.

  • So many targets that the human pilot, even with computer assist, can only focus on a few at a time and the rest of the swarm takes him down.

    Interesting idea.  Basically creating a wolfpack and using flocking swarming algorithms to control the behaviour of the group they could easier take out a more sophisticated target.  In fact you could use it to overload ground defense systems.
    If I was back in that business, I would love to writ ethe simulator for it.  yumm

  • UCAVs will actually be much more capable than manned fighters because there will be far fewer physical limitations. An unmanned fighter doesn’t need to worry about G-force limits rendering its pilot unconscious for example. The only real reason development will be slow is because the U.S. Air Force is run by the fighter pilots, and the USAF is one of the most powerful lobbies in Congress.

  • i’ll be the 1st to admit this is probably a stupid question, but here goes anyway: once saw a ww2 documentary that said the reason jap zeros were so feared and deadly (at least at the start of the war) was that they could make much tighter turns than the US fighters of the time. a tighter turning circle means that -sooner or later – the zero will turn inside you, and end up on your tail. result: zero wins.
    fast forward to now, when ‘turning circle tightness’ is limited to whatever a g-forces a pilot can handle without blacking out. (8G’s? 10G’s? something…) fighters are forced  to stick to making turns that are nowhere near what the airplane is actually capable of, because of this, or so the theory goes. since UAV’s are unmanned, there’s no pilot to black out in a 25G turn, so what’s to stop a UAV with SAM engines bolted on from just making a killer circle inside  ANY manned opponent and winning the engagement? or pulling any other air maneuver that’ll black out the enemy pilot? again, i admit: probably a dumb question, since i’m not a pilot.  but what am i missing here? why does ‘the manned fighter have the advantage over the unmanned one’, when the unmanned one can outfly the manned one? then too, what’s to stop an enemy from using his UAV’s as kamikazes? “all 6 of you $500,000 UAV’s converge on that $40,000,000 F-16 from all 6 attack points and just ram it.” sounds like a pretty cheap and effective way to gain air superiority to me. thoughts?

  • I’m reminded of the story about A-10 pilots in the Gulf using their IR cams to see through the smoke and muck over targets in Iraq — a creative, on-the-spot innovation no drone would’ve ever come up with. Human adaptability has been key to success in more than one war; there’s no substitute for on-scene eyes and ears. Doing away with manned combat aircraft altogether would be a serious mistake.
    So yeah, I’m sure they’ll do it.

  • “Interesting idea.  Basically creating a wolfpack and using flocking swarming algorithms to control the behaviour of the group they could easier take out a more sophisticated target.”

    Correct. And I’m not referring to RPVs. Once directed and delivered to the combat zone, the UAVs become autonomous hunter-killers. Relying completely on internal programs, “group think” and sensor links to target and destroy their prey.

    People have to remember that today’s fighter serves two proposes. One is to kill the target. Second, and some would say the most important, is to as best possible ensure the return of the human pilot.  My UAVs remove the the second part.

    They have but one purpose, kill the enemy. The hardest enemy to defend against is the one who doesn’t care if they live or die.

  • UAVs today are being used to do the 3D missions – Dirty, Dull and Dangerous.  Ground attack sorties expose the attacker to loads of ground fire.  I’m not talking about SAMs and AAA; there lots of 50 Caliber and even 30 Caliber that can bring down a jet.  The Wild Weasel and fast FAC missions are an order of magnitude more dangerous than dirt moving.  At the top of my dull list are tankers.  They’re on autopilot most of the time flying around in circles. Like the song (to the tune of follow the band) says,
    “My husband’s a SAC puke, 
    a SAC puke, a SAC puke. 
    A very fine SAC puke is he.
    “All day he bores holes,
    he bores holes, he bores holes,
    And at night he comes home and bores me.”

  • The complexity and cost rises significantly as mission expands and the capabilities are increased. There is a point where manned aircraft are just as cost effective and at least as efficient as unmanned aircraft.

    Hordes of unmanned aircraft capable of independant operation and with the ability to successfully engage manned aircraft will not be cheap to procure or to operate. They will not be as expendable as current ones. They will also need more defensive ability, which will further add to cost and complexity.