Since the early days of aviation, fighter pilots have been some of the biggest military superstars.
From the Red Baron and Eddie Rickenbacker in their World War I biplanes to the RAF pilots in Britain’s “darkest hour,” to Top Gun-style jet fighter pilots, few military figures have been as iconic.
But are they set to go the way of the mounted swordsman leading a cavalry charge?
British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson (literally) unveiled Britain’s newest fighter plane on Monday at the Farnborough Air Show, presiding over the pulling back of a curtain to reveal the new jet, tentatively called the Tempest, expected to be operational by 2035.
The most interesting thing to the general public about the new plane may be that it can be operated remotely without a pilot, though it does have a cockpit and pilot seat, and can also be flown by a person.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has today unveiled a concept model of a brand-new, next-generation fighter jet as he launched a comprehensive strategy with a bold statement of intent for future British air power #CombatAirStrategy
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) July 16, 2018
The British Defense Ministry doesn’t seem to want to draw attention to the plane’s unmanned capabilities – it’s not even mentioned in the UK government’s press statement about the new plane and the country’s air combat strategy for the coming decades.
It’s not clear whether Tempest, a joint venture of British aerospace companies BAE, Rolls Royce, MBDA UK Ltd and the Anglo-Italian company, Leonardo SpA, will continue to develop as a weapon that is primarily intended for mannned or unmanned use. While the British and French militaries have been jointly studying unmanned combat air vehicles for several years, the head of Britain’s Royal Air Force this week in remarks to reporters at an air power conference in England seemed to put a damper on the idea that unmanned aerial combat is immediately inevitable.
“If you trace this back to 2010, if not before, people were saying we have built the last generation of manned combat aircraft,” British Air Chief Marshal Stephen Hillier said, according to defense industry news website C4ISRNET. “Time has moved on and people have realized that it isn’t easy in the combat air part of it…. In terms of the manned combat air mission operating in contested, high-intensity airspace against demanding threat, we have yet to see a technological path to take the person out of that platform.”
The United States actually started remotely controlling aircraft as long ago as World War II, when they launched unmanned planes and used them for target practice for the pilots flying the manned ones. (If you’re interested in that – and what it has to do with Marilyn Monroe, I wrote about that last month).
The U.S. Air Force last year demonstrated that it is at least thinking about unmanned fighter jets, testing a pilotless F-16. During that test, the drone F-16 flew in a formation, plotted its own course to the target, fired on the target, and responded to an incoming threat. Lockheed Martin, a major player in the design of the pilotless technology in the F-16, seems to envision it as part of an aerial arsenal, not the whole thing. Drones, Lockheed Martin said, could allow human pilots to do some tasks that require more critical thinking, while others are left to drones. It also could replace pilots on particularly dangerous missions, it said.
“Effective manned/unmanned teaming reduces the high cognitive workload, allowing the warfighter to focus on creative and complex planning and management,” Lockheed Martin said in a press release about that F-16 test last year. “Autonomous systems also have the ability to access hazardous mission environments, react more quickly, and provide persistent capabilities without fatigue.”