15
$\begingroup$

Way back in 2010, Elon Musk said,

The fighter jet era has passed.

And he seems to have a point. Although fully autonomous fighter planes are some way off (see above linked article), why doesn't every existing fighter plane (and, for that matter, recon and bomber aircraft) get retrofitted to allow it to be remote-controlled by a pilot sitting a thousand miles away in a simulator? With a good simulator and good communications, it would seem to allow the same maneuverability, and dynamic decision making capabilities, as being in the cockpit, and remove every pilot from harms way.

What am I missing?

And as a follow up question: Are there any fighter jets flying real missions this way now?


One answer pointed to the QF-16 as demonstrating such tech. It's true they are flown unmanned, but oddly enough they seem to undercut the possibilities that exist. For example, in this account from the Drive:

When flying the QF-16 from the ground under remote control, it’s fairly easy to make mistakes, because you don’t get the feeling of G-forces and you’re not hearing the noises from the jet. The X-ray (remote-control) pilot relies solely on computer screens and instruments. [There’s no live video feed to look at either].

Why on earth wouldn't there be video feeds, and ground-based simulators, fitted onto such a jet? This does not sound so expensive for the USAF. Even air museums have great fighter jet simulators. (This video shows some real-time footage from a QF-16 flight, but it looks like they just rigged two GoPros so they could make an ad.)

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Aviation Meta, or in Aviation Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Jan 4 at 14:09

9 Answers 9

37
$\begingroup$

That's a great way to make a fighter jet even more fantastically expensive while being less effective.

One obvious problem is latency. 1000 miles is about a 10 millisecond round-trip delay alone even before you add the time it takes to capture and trasmit the wide-angle high-definition images required to replicate what a pilot could see from the cockpit.

Another obvious problem is electronic warfare. A fighter jet with a pilot is difficult to impossible to hack. A remote-controlled fighter jet is possible to hack. You can make this difficult, but keep in mind that you are facing state-level actors, and if they figure out how to hack one jet, they can hack all your jets. That's billions of dollars of jets that are suddenly useless to you, and useful to your enemy.

Hacking aside, jamming is also an issue. An adversary does not have to take over your jet- if they can disrupt communications they can crash your jets.

and, for that matter, recon and bomber aircraft

There are remote-controlled aircraft with these missions. "Fighter jet" is a uniquely bad mission for drones.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Aviation Meta, or in Aviation Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Jan 4 at 14:09
22
$\begingroup$

1. Demand

The problem isn't just that fighters are manned. It's also the concept of aircraft designed primarily for air-to-air combat that's getting less relevant.

After Vietnam and Yom Kippur (1970s), wars have seen a decline in symmetrical air-to-air combat. In the Falklands (1982), most Argentinian fighters skipped air-to-air armament. Most of what happened later was interception missions - multirole fighters shooting down light bombers (1990s).

That both last major air wars happened in the 1970s is no coincidence. By 1980, computer tech had enabled surface-to-air missiles to pursue maneuvering targets; SAM kills have been going up and air-to-air going down ever since.

Even when two powers with large, modern air forces clashed recently, they didn't engage in epic air superiority battles. They have set up theater-wide air defenses, killing anything that flies deep inside, and use their aircraft sparingly, close to the frontline. Both do deep strikes on one another, but they use missiles and suicide drones instead of interdiction missions. The odds of coming back from those are too low to invest in reusable aircraft.

Does this mean fighters are dead? Not yet. If two superpowers clash over an island chain, distant enough from either of them, they might not have the same ability to "castle" behind air defenses. It's just that this scenario is a small subset of possibilities, and most fighting happens over land.

2. Substitutes

When one needs to penetrate layered theater air defenses, the loss rate for fighters can get as high as 30-50%. It was such in WWII, it gets back there with S-400 or Patriot present. This means a reusable manned platform isn't perfect for deep penetration.

Drones are harder to spot, flying low and slow. Missiles can fly hypersonic (manned fighters aren't effective there), making them harder to kill. Neither incur PR costs or give the opponent prisoners to interrogate or trade. This advantage is shared by remote-controlled fighters. But the other two - the ability to evade interception, or to easily replace losses - aren't. Fighters are slow to replace not just because of the complexity, but also because they're built to be flown, not stockpiled like missiles.

Stealth is the one counter manned fighters still have to extend their life. But it's not perfect, it's expensive to achieve and maintain, there are counter-stealth technologies and methods. Theater air defenses are being designed to exploit these weaknesses. There's still some cat-and-mouse to be played, but expendable drones and missiles are a safer bet.

3. Complexity

For a remotely piloted combat drone, or UCAV, copying the design of a jet fighter isn't optimal. Fighters pay a lot in weight, fuel consumption, and maintenance costs for supersonic flight, high thrust:weight, and 9g maneuvers, all unnecessary for a drone.

Practical UCAV are built as simple and efficient subsonic stealthy platforms, giving them range without refueling. Starting with the MQ-1, they could carry a fire-and-forget missile for air-to-air. It's not as good as a fighter, but the drones are much cheaper, and with good enough missiles, they can hit bombers or deter fighters.

Converting old fighters to drones can be cheap at first, but their maintenance and overhead aren't. Air wings comprise 30-50 men per fighter, which won't go down much for the same plane, just remotely piloted. That's why QF-16s are used as disposable targets and MQ-1/MQ-9s as reusable combat vehicles, not the other way around. Drones are built for low maintenance.

4. Has it really passed?

Keep in mind that Elon Musk is in the tech business, which does give him a bias for unmanned systems. He builds them, after all. But as spectacular as military tech evolution has been, nothing has replaced "boots on the ground" for the long game yet.

Manned fighters are "eyes in the air". They give the pilot better view of their surroundings, better feel for the aircraft, skin in the game. They'll remain relevant for patrolling non-hostile skies and managing unclear rules of engagement.

But as to how far they'll advance beyond F-35, FC-31 and Su-75 - that's less clear. I expect one more generation for sure. The real question is if there will be another generation of heavy fighters (F-22, J-20, Su-57 successors, with certain risks), or if it will all be light fighters and drone controllers from now on.

Post-Cold War, light fighter programs have been a lot more successful than heavy fighter ones. They provide "eyes in the air" for less, and heavy ordnance can be outsourced to drones now. If I had to guess, I'd expect China to follow up on the J-20, but Russia needs drones more than it needs fighters, and while the US is developing the PCA, it's seeing much less focus than unmanned platforms. India and the EU have been going all-light from the start.

Summary: the role of fighters has been partially replaced by drones, but all major players are still pursuing manned fighter programs, mostly light ones. A human pilot is, with few exceptions, a known quantity; AI systems and remote links are not.

$\endgroup$
4
  • $\begingroup$ Even at the end of WW2 radar guided flak was getting good. $\endgroup$ Dec 31, 2023 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ If I recall correctly, the Falklands war in 1982 saw substantial air-to-air combat. However, the fighting was incredibly lopsided, as the Argentine aircraft (manufactured by the French) were no match for the British aircraft. $\endgroup$ Dec 31, 2023 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ @MathKeepsMeBusy True, the island chain scenario. But after the first battle, most Argentinian aircraft didn't even carry air-to-air missiles, they just focused on the ships. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Dec 31, 2023 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ @MathKeepsMeBusy this is NOT intended as a correction - just a comment. The A' Skyhawks did well for themselves in some roles - even though opposed by aircraft notionally their betters. It doesn't have to be specifically air to air combat for the abilityt of one aircraft to the other to matter. $\endgroup$ Jan 1 at 7:53
13
$\begingroup$

The USAF already knows how to do this. The QF series of Full Scale Aerial Targets (FSAT). Ex-front line jets, converted to remote control. Key word there - Target.

They've been doing it for decades. Currently, older F-16A, because they ran out of F-4s.

Also, the Predator/Reaper (and others). Remote control.

The reasons that this is not a slam dunk solution for fighters are many.

Latency. The pilot is always just a teeny bit behind what is actually happening. That's just physics. Flying a Predator or Reaper by remote control is fine, because it is just recon, or shooting a slow or stationary target on the ground.

Hackability A person in the cockpit can't be hacked. We've already had an instance of a Predator being spoofed to land/crash somewhere else.

Visibility Instant head and eyeball swivel, in the cockpit, is hard to recreate with cameras.

Long lead time The current F-22 and F-35 have been in development for decades. Long before real remote control for actual fighter jet capabilities would have been an option.

Remote control for a Reaper mission is much different than what is needed in direct air to air combat.

The new B-21 Raider bomber is supposedly going to be "pilot optional". Again, the flight profile for a bomber is quite different than air to air.

Anecdotally, I have heard rumors that the USAF is investigating the QF-16 concept for actual combat.

Bottom line answer to: "Why are there still fighter pilots in cockpits?"

Because the technology and trust has not yet evolved enough for a full solution. The 'trust' is actually trusting your national security to this still evolving tech.

$\endgroup$
17
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @AnonymousPhysicist: Missiles have an onboard sensor, and have a very simple goal: fly toward something that's significantly slower than they are. This was possible with 1950s era analogue electronics with a feedback loop between control surfaces and the seeker/sensor head: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AIM-9_Sidewinder#Guidance . (Other missile types might have their own radar emitter for fire-and-forget homing via radar instead of IR (Fox 3), or just detect radar reflections from firing plane's radar (Fox 1). Still the same aiming task.) $\endgroup$ Jan 1 at 1:42
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @AnonymousPhysicist: So anti-air missiles have basically zero-latency for finding the angle / bearing to target, thanks to an onboard sensor which they use at least for the final attack phase, if not the entire flight for more sophisticated missiles(?). I assume ground-fired missiles are the same in that respect. $\endgroup$ Jan 1 at 1:49
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @AnonymousPhysicist: Because it's probably not hugely faster and more maneuverable than the enemy plane, so it needs to be clever and set up a maneuver which will bring it into attack position, not necessarily just try to point the nose at the enemy. Also, we're not trying to collide with them. But yes, you could plausibly have enough onboard AI to make dogfighting decisions with the remote operator being more of a target-selector than a full pilot for the final attack phase of a fight. If it ever got to guns range anyway; good long range missiles make that much less likely. $\endgroup$ Jan 1 at 2:35
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AnonymousPhysicist Pilot's main job is to make decision "should I engage". Missile starts operation after the decision making has been finished. $\endgroup$
    – Agent_L
    Jan 1 at 9:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Suggestion for new bulletpoint: visibility/stealth. A transmission going in and out of the plane is yet another way how the enemy can detect you. $\endgroup$
    – Agent_L
    Jan 1 at 9:59
7
$\begingroup$

I don't think you've established that 'keeping pilots out of harms way' solves a problem that needs solving. Most modern fighter aircraft losses have been outside of combat, and the pilot has survived via ejecting.

The US military do not want to lose fighter jets, whether they're piloted or not, because they're extremely expensive, and slow to replace. A conventional modern fighter jet costs over 100 million dollars. Making them 'remote control' will probably increase the cost dramatically, so losing them in combat will become even less desirable.

That the pilot (with a training cost of circa 10 million) may or may not survive is pretty much a secondary consideration, when you look at the hard maths of war. There is an excess of trained fighter pilots, and no shortage of people wanting to transfer to a front-line fast jet squadrons.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ Extremely interesting point. $\endgroup$
    – YouDontSay
    Jan 1 at 18:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Are military drones and their munitions subject to the same air worthiness standards as manned aircraft and their munitions? $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 1 at 21:07
7
$\begingroup$

Put simply: Elon Musk is a big bag of wind.

On a more serious note, he’s done a number of good things in been involved with a number of projects, but his ability to predict the future with new technologies has more misses than hits. One need only reference the Boring Company, hyperloop, Neuralink, Twitter (now X) takeover, the Tesla solar roof, semi and truck, supersonic VTOL electric jet, and still failed Starship and ludicrous plans to colonize Mars due two years ago for this. You need to understand something about Musk. His fortune is planted in Tesla as well as SpaceX stock. If those fail, he’s going to be near broke. To make money, therefore, the name of the game is to continue to get the stock prices of those companies jacked higher and higher. To do this, Musk is banking on his genius public persona to support his own flights of speculation and bombast. So far, the media, as well as Elon’s legions of devoted fans have indulged him in this game. But sooner or later, that kind of behavior will be a kite that will inevitably land in the mud.

Now, in regards to a fully autonomous AI driven fighter aircraft, we’re not quite there yet in the technology sense, though a number of defense companies like Anduril are pursuing this. Just when we arrive at the point where a fully autonomous fighter is practical as well as accepted by the military is anybody’s guess. Some reports are giving it no more than 20 years away. Artificial intelligence is nowhere near capable of innovative and pure creative thinking for tactics and can only stochastically parrot what it has been taught. It’s still unclear as to how AI and fully autonomous aircraft will handle challenges, everything from changes and mission parameters, rules of engagement to emergency procedures. A lot of the stuff represents the great unknown and currently no known AI is capable of coping with it.

“Even ‘Star Wars’ had a pilot in the cockpit. Air combat is so dynamic, the human element brings flexibility that I think will actually be the key to success out there. Because there’s just no substitute for being there, on the spot, in the air, seeing who’s injured, who’s not damaged, who’s in trouble, who’s not in trouble. There’s all sorts of things that the pilot can do at the scene that someone, far away from the scene or remotely flying it or a computer controlled airplane will never, ever be able to figure out.”

Cmdr C.J. Heatly, USN (Ret.)

$\endgroup$
9
  • $\begingroup$ Star Wars had pilots in the cockpit because it has human actors carrying the story. Those droids are more than capable. Indeed, they are too capable and are hamstrung so that they don't pose too great a danger. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 1 at 20:54
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It’s also irrational to say that because Elon ran a firm which did that, therefore he’s an authority on subjects like modern warfare - specific on whether manned jet fighters should continue to be a part of the DoD’s armamentarium. What I am pointing out is that Elon makes a lot of predictions that do not come true because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and this can be proved out using very basic back of the envelope calculations. $\endgroup$ Jan 2 at 2:57
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I will also add that in the successes that Elon has had in his career, they have an essence been either 1) hostile takeovers of firms on the technology forefront (Tesla) 2) developing already existing products (Tesla, SpaceX), 3) or been discharged for incompetence after creating a company that went on to be successful when not under his leadership (PayPal). Again, Mr. Musk’s business model has been hype, and using these disingenuous claims of success to get people to invest on his crazy ideas and boost his stock holdings, not in the development of tangible hardware. $\endgroup$ Jan 2 at 3:07
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Musk is a great example of why brilliant, mercurial masters shouldn't be let too close to direct social media. While their brains spout out incredibly good ideas, they also spout out a much larger volume of incredibly bad ideas. Given sufficient time, the turds will self-extinguish, while a great idea is "asserting itself with ever-growing insistency" as Daniel H. Burnham puts it. This is why social media reduces geniuses to hated twits - the countless bad ideas get airtime far too hastily. $\endgroup$ Jan 2 at 3:47
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ FWIW, this is not an unusual assessment of Elon's ideas. Take a look through his bio, and one thing that jumps out at you is that every time he financially "leveled up", it was after the people running the business he invested in ignored his ideas, and went with something completely different that hit it big. $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 2 at 20:30
4
$\begingroup$

The pilot is flying an old design.

Elon Musk said that in 2010. The F-35 program started around 1997 and became operational around 2012. The J-20 program started around 2008 and became operational around 2018. These programs might last 50 years, keeping pilots in the sky for quite a while.

If you wrongly assume retrofits are better than building a new plane, it would take 10-15 years to develop the retrofit and it would be kept secret. If you think that procurement officials agreed with Musk in 2010 and started retrofitting procurement in 2010, then check back in 2025 to see if they succeeded.

Are there any fighter jets actually flying this way now?

If by "fighter jet" you mean "anti-air weapon," then yes. The Patriot has been operational since 1984 and, once launched, is autonomous. The S-300 ha been operational since 1978. These unmanned weapons are not jets and are not reusable. In some situations, those features make them better than fighter jets.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ Very good point about Patriot. If I'm going to make a flying weapons platform that can fire missiles onto targets, why not just fire the missile from the ground. $\endgroup$
    – JeffUK
    Jan 2 at 10:12
2
$\begingroup$

The answer is that this is being investigated. Check out Red 6, and what they are doing. Initially, they are investigating the concept to see if it might be a way to train new fighter pilots using a virtual adversary, but it's not a great leap to put the pilot in a cockpit on the ground, connected to the airframe over datalink... It may or may not pan out. There are many issues associated with it, but it takes time, (and money), to research and investigate all of them. Jets cost a lot of money and it would be stupid to build a fleet of them before we are confident in the concept.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

A very good 8K video display provides only 33.18 megapixel resolution when the "native resolution" of the human eye is commonly cited as 576 Mp. Not all this information is processed by human brain, but the brain and already the eye itself are both very good in selecting what is important and what is not. Right the same cells that capture the light in retina are also the neural cells and start signal processing immediately. The eye instantly turns itself to place the object of interest into the center of retina, where the resolution is much higher.

And the data transfer rate of this good monitor is 80 gigabytes per second. It can be compressed to be much less, but the latency will soon be enough to make the difference.

This difference will likely put a remote pilot into inferior position, constantly claiming that the camera of the drone never points into the right direction on time. It may be cases where it matters less, but as long as the outcome of the combat depends on ability to see and aim at the enemy first, the remote pilot does not have many chances.

One of my tasks was to observe experimental robots with remote camera, with the goal of stopping them in time if they do something wrong. While the task was easy to manage when watching the robots directly with finger on the button (reaction time of 200 ms or about), with camera never showing the center of the problem properly and all latency added, it was totally mission impossible.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Because all the sensors in the world are trickable by electronic jamming. Organic eyes and reflex are immune to electromagnetic interference.

More point Once digital doodads are hacked with Virus, malware, corrupt code, false sensor readings the robots will fail.

$\endgroup$

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .