Friends in the Navy have been theorizing for years about a future where unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) might fly actual combat missions. One theoretical concept might be large flights of aircraft, perhaps with one manned to control 12 unmanned, and those 12 unmanned being giving broad engagement orders and sent into automated combat with performance characteristics that no manned aircraft could ever do because of the human element. The Navy has lots of real world experience with combat and UAVs and aviation and are well poised to think through these activities and are really innovating in this new domain.
Meanwhile many friends in the USAF have also been getting real world experience with UAVs, but for cultural/political reasons seem to be dragging their feet when it comes to UAV innovation. There seems to be a cultural fear that if machines can fly then the Air Force and its human leaders might be less important. The argument is never made so bluntly but that seems to be the gist of what they are saying (it is also not an argument I buy, by the way, there will always be a need for strong human leadership in the USAF, they should have no fear). The Air Force has even invented a new acronym. They hardly ever use the term UAV anymore. They much prefer to say RPA. Why? Because RPA stands for “Remotely Piloted Vehicle” which underscores that a human is controlling the UAV, as if that is going to slow down the march of progress. The fact is that these UAVs have always had human issuing their orders but they are very capable robots themselves and each generation ads more and more automation.
Since the Air Force is dominated by pilots (as you would expect) and is most dominated by fighter pilots I don’t expect their cultural biases against UAVs to change anytime soon, especially against UAVs that are designed to outperform humans in combat missions. I know there is also that sort of bias against these systems from USN aviation but perhaps other cultural issues at play made the Navy more open to experimenting with these capabilities. After years of concept development and testing they have now demonstrated some awesome capabilities. Our analyst Chris Scott will provide an update on these capabilities tomorrow. For now, check out the video below of an X-47B taxing on and then taking off from an Aircraft Carrier. Awesome. This is so cool it could have come right out of a science fiction movie.
It is also cool that the USN did this. Go Navy!