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.”

The General Atomics Protector is a variation on the MQ-9 Reaper program. | Wikimedia Commons

Despite the incredible things drones are capable of while under direct human control or not, the platforms just aren’t as robust and capable as their manned counterparts in the sky. This is in large part because a system does not currently exist that can either mimic human levels of decision making or one that can offer a drone operator stationed elsewhere with the same level of in-the-moment situational awareness pilots in the fight have at their disposal. When it comes to making quick life or death decisions, even the communications delay between drone and operator can mean all the difference between success and failure.

That required direct line of communications represents another significant hurdle to overcome before drones start replacing human pilots. A link is required for drones to conduct most combat operations and when that link is severed, different platforms respond differently: some will simply power down and fall out of the sky, others will autonomously land or return to the base that deployed them, but none will execute a mission (like firing live ordnance at targets) without an active link to operators. Drones simply can’t, and don’t, decide to fire missiles without some level of human input.

Now, that lack of decision making capability can be overcome, but not without first having a long and difficult discussion about combat ethics. Giving computers the ability to make decisions about when to fire and when not to is the subject of significant debate stretching into concerns about precedent in the age of developing artificial intelligence. Just as many worry about driver-less cars making life or death decisions on America’s highways, many within the voting populous would find the idea of computers deciding to fire missiles at targets overseas. Civilian casualties are difficult enough to justify, just imagine the first time an American general has to explain why his robot decided to destroy a mosque full of civilians to engage a terror cell operating from inside the structure.

Ultimately, what’s preventing a nation like the United States from fielding a drone-centric military can be boiled down to those two problems: technological capability and ethical quandary. Resolving the former is just a matter of time, but making it past the latter will require a fundamental shift in the way we think about warfare — and the weight we assign each lost human life. Even if drone systems could prove more capable of accomplishing missions with fewer civilian casualties, it will always be more difficult to justify a computer’s decision to kill an innocent person than it would be to let a pilot argue his reasons for pulling the trigger. Just like in the case of driverless cars, human beings tend to be more comfortable with a higher casualty rate at the hands of their fellow man than they are with outsourcing the decisions to a high powered calculator.