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But all piloted applications are running against the clock. Dunnigan says the only remaining argument for manned warplanes is the stubborn belief that humans are better. "This will be settled," he says, "in the next decade or so as autonomous combat aircraft defeat manned ones in air-to-air combat. The software will win."
Ben-Ari says there are still operationally relevant issues for manned aircraft. "Some decisions, life or death decisions about dropping ordnance on a target, need to be made by a person who is there in the cockpit," he says. "Even the very slight delay through a data feed or video link is too much."
Nevertheless, he notes that the slowness with which the services are moving to the pilot-free future has much to do with the inertia of military culture. "The Air Force as an organization has put such a strong emphasis on the fighter pilot," he says. "That’s true when you look at who gets the most attention and who gets promoted. It’s only recently that you’ve started to see the highest ranks in the Air Force not filled mostly with fighter pilots. Replacing all that with a guy sitting in a trailer in Nevada and controlling a UAV is almost inconceivable at this point."
To be clear, I am not advocating retiring all the pilots tomorrow. As the B-52 example shows, legacy systems remain serviceable long after their cool factor has been depleted. As recently as a few weeks ago, the German air force was still putting up F-4 Phantoms, a great airplane that has been in service for more than half a century. The rapid operational tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last decade was achieved with such warhorses as the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18. These and the many other combat planes currently in service can protect America just fine during the transition to the remote-pilot and no-pilot future.
To speak of waste in military spending is like condemning the dampness of the ocean. But our country is broke. The feats of American combat pilots have rightly thrilled and inspired generations of Americans, but the only legitimate task of a military is to defend the country from its enemies. Devoting more resources to manned warplanes is like a far more expensive version of NASA’s astronaut program: an immovable cost center where most of the cost involves just keeping human beings alive in environments where machines can do a better job. (As the Air Force's 2009 UAV Flight Plan drily notes, "[Unmanned Aerial Systems] are compelling where human physiology limits mission execution.") Piloted systems also suck money from the actual future: If defense spending increases are actually reduced and the F-35 program in its current form continues, the result could be an actual increase in the per-unit cost of UAVs, as the armed services make smaller orders—despite huge and growing demand for UAVs from combatant commanders.
More to the point, Russia and China are right now expending their own treasure in efforts to build a "fifth-generation" fighter. To the extent that these countries remain great-power rivals of the United States, we should let them continue to waste their money, and let them waste it alone. This is one contest where you win by not competing.
Tim Cavanaugh is managing editor of Reason.com.