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Northrop Grumman’s portrait of the future for naval aviation: the X-47B on the runway in Palmdale, California. (Courtesy Northrop Grumman)

*Pilot Not Included

Military aviation prepares for the inevitable

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Former Navy pilot Steve “Scaggs” Bos recalls that flying fighters off carriers was “the most fun you could have with your clothes on.” He logged more than 4,000 hours in A-7s and F/A-18s, and made some 700 carrier landings. Now he works at Northrop Grumman on the X-47B. “At first, the thought that a machine could do it as good or better than you all the time was a little bit alien,” says Bos, who handles the logistics of managing the UCAV on the carrier deck. He knows that pilots will probably hold the rookie robot to a higher standard than they do one another. “It will be hard to accept it into the club until that robot does something phenomenal for you,” he says. “Maybe it gives you critical targeting information. Or meets you on a bingo profile [almost out of fuel] and gives you 500 pounds of fuel,” where a pilot might otherwise have to ditch in the ocean when his tanks run dry. “Until we go out there and prove it,” he adds, “Northrop Grumman will be perceived as just blowing smoke.”

The X-47B is a bit smaller than an F/A-18, with a bay that can hold intelligence sensors, guided weapons, or tanks to refuel other airplanes. Though manned fighters look sleek, they produce more drag than the X-47B’s flying-wing design, which offers more than 2,000 miles in range, almost twice that of an F/A-18.

“As a young man, I would have said, ‘Gosh, they’re trying to take my job,’ ” says Hubbard, who has flown more than 26 years as a Navy pilot. As a commander of more than 500 pilots, he now takes a longer view. “The unique thing in the future is I won’t have to put my blood and treasure forward to do the nation’s business. I think that is a brilliant concept in itself. But there will always need to be men in the loop to make those decisions that are critical.”

He imagines UAVs as force-multiplying wingmen. “They’re more agile, they’re more survivable, they have smaller signatures,” he says. “I can send them out there and distribute them as part of my total strike package. I have one man with potentially three, four, [even] eight UAVs on my wing. I know it’s kind of outlandish to think about, but I think that is potentially the future.”

Plenty of minds agree. Britain’s BAE Systems is developing an unmanned stealth aircraft, Taranis, with intercontinental range. Boeing’s Phantom Works is funding development of a UCAV called the Phantom Ray. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking for an unmanned version of the A-10 “Warthog.”

Pilots know that the kinds of advances that brought head-up displays, radar improvements, and precision weapons will extend to UAVs, making carriers “much more lethal and powerful,” says Captain Sterling Gilliam, an EA-6B Prowler pilot who commanded a Navy air wing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Hubbard, Gilliam thinks UCAVs and piloted aircraft will creatively coexist. “I don’t believe the last naval aviator has been born,” he says. “But if he has, I just hope he’s not in grade school yet.”

“When the human is a detriment to the mission, then it’s time to look at unmanned,” says Craig Brown, a former Air Force F-16 flight instructor who now manages the Phantom Ray program for Boeing. Piloted airplanes carry heavy ejection seats, oxygen, and other support equipment, requiring either more fuel or less airtime due to weight. Removing people and their baggage frees capacity for more sensors, weapons, and fuel, and longer flight times than humans could stand. Brown asks: “How many humans can stay in the air for 24 hours over the same piece of geography and stay awake, let alone remain effective?”

Retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, a former F-15 pilot, was a powerful proponent of flying aircraft remotely. Today, he questions what he calls “excessive exuberance” for unmanning all sorts of aircraft. He points out that UAVs (or the Air Force’s preferred RPVs, for “remotely piloted vehicles”—the service avoids the term “unmanned”) often require more manpower than conventional aircraft because the video and other data streaming in from their ever-expanding array of sensors must be analyzed. Just because an airplane can operate remotely, Deptula says, doesn’t mean it should. “The essence of conflict warfare is a very human activity,” he says. “If it was a science, we could turn it over to machine-to-machine, and whoever had the best algorithms would win.” He recalls fighting computer simulators that were plenty tough. But, he says: “I won.”

General Ronald Fogleman was the Air Force chief of staff in the mid-1990s when he created the first air wing dedicated to UAVs. The light bulb went on for him about the importance of UAVs as he saw support building right up through the ranks to Congress. He wanted the Air Force to lead on UAVs and wanted trained pilots to fly them. “Early on, this thing was such a novelty, I really don’t think rated pilots saw it as much of a threat,” he says.

But commanders began assigning jet pilots to sit at consoles in Nevada and fly Predators and Reapers in Afghanistan via satellite, which rattled many in the pilot culture. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates complained in 2008 that getting the Air Force to field more UAVs more quickly was like “pulling teeth.” Later that year, Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz warned that Air Force culture must not treat UAV pilots as a “leper colony.” Many feel the Air Force stumbled by pushing pilots into a field they never signed up for. Today, however, says Fogleman, it is viewed as a new career field that will over time develop its own unique culture.

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About Michael Milstein

Michael Milstein is a freelance writer who specializes in science. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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