Title: The Pilotless Air Force?

Subject: A look at replacing human operators with advanced technology.

Author(s): Robert C Nolan


Abstract: Today, there are several concepts that are threatening Billy Mitchell's vision of airmen. New technology and operational concepts are threatening the existence of the human aircraft operator. Looming on the horizon are unmanned aerial vehicles, spaced based weapons, and information architectures. This research effort is limited in scope. It focuses specifically on the UAV issue and explores the possibility that airmen will be replaced by unmanned vehicles in the next twenty years.

On the one hand, UAVs offer distinct advantages over manned aircraft. UAVs will save lives and money. UAVs are not constrained by the physiological limits of the human operator. In addition, they eliminate tough political situations that arise when airmen are shot down over unfriendly territory.

On the other hand, even with advanced unmanned technology, airmen still provide the Air Force with the indispensable qualities of flexibility and adaptability. These qualities, fueled by initiative and experience, are absolutely necessary to deal with the friction inherent in war.

Rapid advances in technology will produce man-in-the-loop and autonomous UAVs that will serve as force multipliers. Man-in-the-loop systems are vulnerable to communications jamming while autonomous systems do not provide the flexibility required or present a moral dilemma. Manned combat aircraft will be required to deal with uncertainty and chaos. UAVs will increase the requirements for highly trained airmen.

The Air Force must exploit the advantages offered by the UAV. UAVs will play a significant role in future operations. However, as a warfighting institution, the Air Force must not forget the significant contribution of the human operator. The UAV is a force multiplier and nothing more. This technology will augment, not replace, the human operator. Airmen are critical to the functioning of the Air Force and they will continue to be well into the next century. To maintain the asymmetric advantage that air power gives our nation, skilled, cunning operators will be required to handle the uncertainty of war.

Material for this effort was gathered through the Air University Library, the ACSC curriculum, and interviews.

Last updated 1998 Mar 11