• The Air Force wants to pit Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) against  manned fighter jets
  • UCAVs  are expected to be  quicker and more accurate
  • If successful, it may provide the U.S. Air Force massive air superiority over other nations

The U.S. Air Force wants to pit autonomous drones guided by artificial intelligence (AI)-based flight control systems against fighter jets flown by experienced fighter pilots. The project, which seems like science fiction coming to life, could reshape air-to-air as we know it.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, who heads the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), stated at a remote event hosted by the Air force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies last week that the faceoff between AI and trained fighter pilots is slated to take place in July 2021.

A report in the Air Force Magazine said the general did not divulge any details about the design of the drone, which will take part in the combat maneuver. However, he did reveal that the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Autonomy Capability Team 3 will be in charge of designing the AI-based drone, which is being called the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV). It will be capable of both air-to-air combat as well as air-to-ground strikes.

UCAVs vs. Fighter Jets

A UCAV is expected to be able to perform the same functions as a manned aircraft and make decisions quickly and more accurately, since it will be able to process information faster than humans, using its AI capabilities. 

US army drones on the tarmac at the Ain al-Asad airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar US army drones on the tarmac at the Ain al-Asad airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar Photo: AFP / Ayman Henna

UCAVs may also be able to create new formations, which may not be possible with human fighter pilots. These formations can have variations, especially in an air-to-air scenario: while some can work on laser tracking of targets, others can engage those targets.

Another important aspect is that the design would be free from the requirements of accommodating humans and would be able to undergo greater stress than humans. This would also make them cheaper to make with no need for systems such as ejection seats.

The U.S. Air Force has also been testing how drones can act as “loyal wingmen” of fighter jets and fly together with manned planes. Many AI-based systems have already been deployed in fighter jets to ensure better decision making and reduce pilot fatigue.

The use of such drones has the potential to revolutionize air combat and, if successful, give a massive boost to the air superiority of the U.S. Air Force. The real test of these drones, however, will be a war-time situation, when it will have to face multiple threats on land and in the air.

It remains to be seen how the manned vs. unmanned duel will shape up next summer. The encounter will help gauge the role of AI in battlefield situations.