No More Manned Fighter Jets?
Robert Farley cites testimony by SECDEF Bob Gates and JCS Chair Mike Mullen wherein they don’t dismiss entirely the idea that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter might be the last manned fighter the U.S. military ever builds. He thinks this a logical evolution:
[T]here 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. And in any case, it appears that the A-10 will remain the platform of choice for fighting the giant robots that undoubtedly will afflict us in the future…
David Axe notes that the aircraft companies and the Russians might have something to say about that and several of Matt Yglesias‘ commenters point out that the cultural affinity of the military, particularly the Air Force, for manned fighters will be hard to overcome. One, Campesino, observes that the Navy is already working on an unmanned carrier bomber.
I don’t claim much expertise on weapons technology but unmanned fighters are scientifically inevitable. We’re already pushing the envelope on what human pilots can sustain. Designing planes around human beings means making them larger, more expensive, and less capable of doing their job than they could already be now. Human physiology is unlikely to evolve as fast as aerospace technology. (As an aside, we’ll continue to need human piloted transport planes, I think, because the need for human judgment is more critical and the need for speed and maneuver is diminished.)
I do, however, have some expertise on the impact of military culture on force planning, having written my dissertation on the subject. The late Carl Builder outlined the basics twenty years ago in his masterwork The Masks Of War: American Military Styles In Strategy And Analysis. The essence of the book is that each of the military services has a core vision of itself that remains constant even as technology and the operational environment change. While the Navy has had fighter planes just as long as the Air Force (indeed, longer than we’ve had an independent Air Force), it merely sees airplanes as one tool in maintaining American dominance of the seas. The Air Force, by contrast, exists only because of its “toys” and its pilots think of themselves first and foremost as drivers of a particular aircraft.
The combination of the pilot mafia, lobbyists for aircraft manufacturers, and powerful sympathizers in the halls of Congress will make it very difficult to make the technologically logical move here.