Northrop Grumman X-47B Pegasus meets the press

“Superfighter pilots will learn cost effectiveness the day they’re outnumbered
by half-price UCAVs, flying further, staying longer, thinking faster and shooting better,
all the while pulling gee turns that would crush a human being to jelly.”

Airborne Terminators?





The future of the fighter plane: X-47B & Phantom Ray

K

YLE REESE TO SARAH CONNOR: “Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

Much as killer robots like the Terminator have entered the American mythos, technically the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones headlining over the Afghanistan/Pakistan border don’t qualify. They’re not autonomous. They’re remote-controlled, requiring pilots somewhere to make their judgments, decisions, and trigger pulls. Even cruise missiles like the Tomahawk and AGM-86 ALCM follow pre-programmed courses and can’t be said to “think.” Yet when machines can already beat a world champion at chess, win at Jeopardy!, and play ping pong, no one believes airborne Terminators can’t happen.

Even today a Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk can take off, fly halfway around the world, make a reconnaissance run and land back home, no pilot required. Combine autopilot navigation with target acquisition and weapons management, and all that remains for a UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) is to handle enemy action. Think of it as midair speed chess, with missiles.

The aviation industry knows onboard combat pilots are history—just google Boeing X-45, Northrop Grumman X-47B Pegasus and General Atomics Avenger. Squadrons of fifth-generation manned fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, Sukhoi PAK-FA, and Chengdu J-20 will be nation-breaking expensive to build and maintain. The F-35 Lightning II is projected to run as high as $300 million per copy, the proposed 6th-gen Boeing F/A XX presumably even more. Mass-produced UCAVs—relatively cheap to make and lose—will be equalizers, especially for less affluent nations; elements in Pakistan are already clamoring for a fleet of X-47s to counter India’s PAK-FA venture. Superfighter pilots will learn cost effectiveness the day they’re outnumbered by half-price UCAVs, flying further, staying longer, thinking faster and shooting better, all the while pulling gee turns that would crush a human being to jelly.

Still, autonomous flying robots will probably never happen. Generals already have autonomous soldiers. It’s why they want ones that aren’t—soldiers that will follow any order, even to destruction, without question, doubt or guilt. That’s not autonomy. An autonomous combat robot would be one with the ability to refuse an order. The nightmare scenario is when the order refused is “Stop.”

Americans seem fine with robots vacuuming their floors and mowing their lawns, if sadly inured to collateral damage and unintended civilian casualties in far away drone strikes. The combination does not bode well. With Predators and Global Hawks already flying deep into Mexico and (so far) unarmed UAVs patrolling our cities, we just have to trust drone pilots. When drones become robots, we’ll have to trust programmers. Always, we’ll have to trust that an order to fire or not comes from somebody, somewhere up the line, who has our best interests at heart. We trust them now, don’t we?

Sure. Until they’re robots, too.


HTML Comment Box is loading comments...