No Pilot, No Problem

The future of military aviation is unmanned. The sooner it comes, the better.


With no fanfare and little media notice, an extremely famous American will turn 60 years old this Sunday. 

It was on Tax Day in 1952 that the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, hulking symbol of the Cold War, accident-prone target of the unkind acronym "B.U.F.F.," the bomber several generations believed would usher in the death of humanity, made its first flight. 

Some interesting points about the B-52: 

• It was considered old-fashioned even before its operational life began. In the late 1940s the Air Force almost shut down the plane's development out of concerns that it would be obsolete by the time it entered service. 

• It comes honestly by its status as a cultural icon. That first flight was made by storied test pilot Alvin M. "Tex" Johnston, who is widely believed to have been the model for Major T.J. "King" Kong, the colorful B-52 pilot played by Slim Pickens in the Stanley Kubrick movie Dr. Strangelove. Over the years the B-52 has lent its name to a cocktail, several motion pictures, countless nightclubs around the world, and a great dance band whose flamboyantly gay stylings now seem as quaint and dated as the bomber itself. 

• Though it has a reputation as a nuclear-age terror weapon, it has never delivered nuclear ordnance. To this day, the only plane that has dropped atomic bombs in anger is the B-52's propeller-driven predecessor B-29 Superfortress. 

• Despite all the above, the B-52 is expected to remain in service until 2045. It performed shooting-war service this century over Afghanistan and Iraq. It will almost certainly outlast flashier successors like the Rockwell B-1 and the Northrop Grumman B-2. Given the vagaries of budget and the challenges of fully retiring any legacy system, it's not impossible that the unloved B.U.F.F. could end up spending a full century in service. 

More striking than the B-52's military longevity, however, is the question of why we're still putting pilots into the cockpits of military aircraft at all. With each passing week, the arguments for moving to all-unmanned military aviation [pdf] attain greater speed and elevation, and the case for maintaining piloted warplanes sputters closer to the ground. Yet manned military aircraft systems continue to pull in hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.  

The F-22 Raptor ended up being such a money-suck that the future of that airplane is in doubt. The F-35 formerly known as the "Joint Strike Fighter" long ago became the most expensive procurement program in military history. The training and maintenance of pilots incurs costs that are uniquely vast in the never-cheap economy of military personnel spending. With the United States armed forces not having engaged a serious enemy in air-to-air combat since the Vietnam War, the age of the fighter plane seems to be well and truly over. 

In most conceivable battle environments, American air supremacy is a given. Even if this were not the case, if the United States were to face a real enemy air force in contested air space, it's not clear manned warplanes would be the best way to do it. 

The most compelling argument against an all-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) force is that these still have to be controlled from the ground, introducing a time delay that can be critical in an engagement. 

"A real vulnerability of the current generation of remotely operated planes is that communications link to the ground," Peter W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute, wrote in an email. "It's a tether that slows things down, is easily clogged by the big amounts of data going through it, and most importantly can be targeted by an adversary via electronic means."

But there are ways around all these problems. Singer notes that more research is going into making UAVs more autonomous. And time delay is not a new issue. "The delay ('latency') is compensated for within the software," said James Dunnigan, a military analyst, wargame designer and editor of StrategyPage.com, in an email. "This has been a common problem in remotely controlled devices for a long time. Solutions are available and it is not a show stopper, even in combat UAVs." 

Even assuming an insurmountable qualitative disadvantage for UAVs relative to manned aircraft, there's a simple solution familiar from the world of computing: brute numerical force. Right now a Predator-class UAV costs $4.5 million per unit, and that cost has been falling. The Air Force version of the F-35 [pdf] costs $197 million per unit (the Navy version is even more expensive), and while that cost is projected to go down in the future, so far it has gone nowhere but up. 

The differences in manpower costs are not even comparable: You can lose UAVs all day long without losing any pilots, but a downed fighter pilot can't be replaced (unless he bails out over a populated civilian area in Virginia Beach). We're also several years into multiple-control capability, in which a single operator can exercise simultaneous command and control of multiple UAVs. That's a 44-to-1 numerical advantage at about the same cost in equipment and a much lower cost in personnel.

This may seem like an apples-to-oranges comparison, and the next generation of UAVs, the Reaper, is quite a bit costlier, at $30.3 million apiece. "I don't think anyone is arguing for an all UAV air power in the real world any time soon," says Singer. "I can't think of one person seriously advocating that outside the land of kooks and sci-fi."

And yet the Reaper is an advanced enough combat machine that the Air National Guard has seen fit to transition an entire F-16 fighter wing to Reaper duty. And if the history of cruise missiles from the V-1 through the Tomahawk indicates anything, it's that speed and lethality are not the real cost centers. The big price tag comes from trying to fly a fast and deadly machine while keeping a live man inside. The trajectory of costs points to only one conclusion: An unmanned air force would deliver an unbeatable numerical advantage for a much lower price. 

The problem with all this is that right now there are no unclassified fighter UAVs, and even jet-propelled UAVs are a rarity. And here's a pretty compelling demonstration of a manned vs. unmanned exchange in real combat, in which the wetware comes out on top:

But the distance toward fighter UAVs is closing rapidly. There are supersonic UAVs. There are UAV swarm "buddies" for the F-35. There is Europe's Dassault nEURon, and China's wonderfully named Dark Sword. At this point deploying full-combat UAVs is a question of ethics and laws of war more than of technology. 

That's in the unlikely case that air-to-air combat will be a feature of future U.S. wars. There are other military applications that still require a pilot in a plane. Close ground support is one, although even here the on-the-spot judgment of a pilot could over time become less valuable than having the ground forces control their own UAVs. Guy Ben-Ari, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, mentions another use for piloted craft: "Other than very high-end contested air space scenarios," Ben-Ari said in an interview, "the place where [manned aircraft still have a place] would be in special operations type of missions, where it's not so much about speed or lethality but stealth and infiltrating and exfiltrating small teams of forces. In those situations, because of their being considered high-value operations, you'd still want to have a man in the cockpit." 

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.