Today’s technology is insufficient to allow unmanned aircraft to make independent, complex judgments in an ambiguous and novel environment and so must be tethered to human judgment. But data links can be denied or deceived, and in any case, they introduce seconds of delay that can be crucial, such as when prosecuting moving targets or surviving in well-defended airspace.
In theory, some of these limitations ought to erode as unmanned technology develops. Aircraft can already take off and land by themselves. Funded programs are developing autonomous air refueling and “sense and avoid” systems, which will allow more regular flight operations in regulated airspace.
The Air Force is also funding research into tougher problems, such as automated dynamic mission planning and automated target recognition, and will continue to do so…
Academic centers also continue research into artificially intelligent moral reasoning that might one day allow autonomous application of rules of engagement in complex situations.
Finally, the history of electronics suggests that after 2020, computational power roughly equal to that of a human brain may be available to consumers for about what we pay today for a decent laptop.
Yet the technology that would enable true autonomy for a combat aircraft remains unusually hard and elusive. There is little reason to believe key technologies such as automated mission planning and target recognition will be ready in a decade, which is about how long it takes to design, build and test a major new aircraft, such as the LRS-B.
On the other hand, such an aircraft is likely to fly 20 to 40 years beyond its initial acquisition, a span that may see the emergence of key pacing technologies and perhaps even true human-equivalent general artificial intelligence.
The best option is to build future platforms “autonomy ready” — that is, so local or remote pilots could be replaced by artificial intelligence through software upgrades rather than costly hardware retrofits or new platforms.
Such design for optional manning would create an aircraft able to execute all aspects of its mission at initial operating capability while accommodating the overall trend toward greater unmanned capabilities. It neither assumes that key unmanned capabilities will be ready along with the airframe and propulsion systems nor locks out the kinds of autonomic improvements likely in the following decades.