With a rapidly developing military drone industry growing in prominence the world over, and heavyweight defense contractors like Northrop Grumman devoting a large portion of their overall R&D programs to unmanned aerial vehicles, it’s easy to see that the future of military aviation will be largely unmanned. The benefits of such a transition are extensive, both economically and ethically, as fewer warfighters are put into harm’s way, and aircraft designed to operate without a human on board can forgo all of the complicated (and expensive) systems relied upon to keep those pilots alive. Accustomed to the rapid progression of technology we’ve enjoyed in recent decades, many now see the military pilot as an endangered species — a misconception that could be partially responsible for the significant shortage of combat pilots the Air Force is already contending with today.
So if it will likely soon become cheaper to field drones than manned aircraft in combat and it reduces the risk of death or capture among American aviators, why wouldn’t advanced militaries like those defending the United States and China already be making the push to get humans out of the cockpit and into the control room? Well, there are actually a number of reasons.
The biggest hurdle to overcome when considering a primarily drone operated air force (as in a force within that battle space, not the branch) is the technology’s level of maturity. Currently, no nation on earth has been able to develop a drone platform that is as capable within contested airspace as an aircraft with a pilot onboard. The complexity, processing power, innumerable variables in play and stakes of combat operations all still require a human brain to manage in real time. According to Air Chief Marshal Stephen Hillier of the U.K.’s Royal Air Force,
If you trace this back to 2010, if not before, people were saying we have built the last generation of manned combat aircraft. That view was based on how people saw technology development at that stage. But time has moved on and people have realized that it isn’t easy in the combat air part of it. You can have highly sophisticated ISR capabilities like the [General Atomics] Protector, but 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.”