The Human Vs. Drone Dogfight

The U.S. Air Force will square off an AI-powered drone against a fighter jet flown by a real, live human being. The service wants to know if AI powered by machine learning can beat a human pilot with actual cockpit experience. The result will help the Air Force determine if AI-powered fighters are a viable alternative to human-powered fighters, the results of which could have far-reaching consequences for aerial warfare.

Air Force Magazine reports Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, head of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, stated that the fly off would take place in 2021. Shanahan was speaking at a virtual event of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Earlier reports stated that the fly-off would likely involve an older plane such as the F-16 before progressing to more advanced jets like the F-35 and F-22. If that’s the case, the Air Force will probably fly an unmanned F-16 versus a manned F-16, to make sure the human pilot and AI have as level a playing field as possible. The Air Force has already developed a remote flying mechanism, converting the F-16 to QF-16 target drones , and presumably the AI would control that mechanism.

The Pentagon has flown fighters against drones before. In 1971, spy drone manufacturer Teledyne Ryan modified their BFM-34 reconnaissance drone with the Maneuverability Augmentation System for Tactical Air Combat Simulation, or MASTACS. The result was the BFM-34E unmanned fighter jet. Fast, maneuverable, and with a low radar cross section, the BFM-34E was a difficult opponent for a human fighter pilot to fly against. A paper prepared for the U.S. Air Force’s Air University described the drone:Both the USAF and USN used this UAV to train their best pilots in simulated air combat. At Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, the BGM-34F was used as a target in the annual William Tell air combat competition. This UAV routinely outmaneuvered manned F-15 and F-16 aircraft; one named ‘Old Red’ survived eighty-two dogfights. The USN used the MASTACS as a “graduation exercise” at their Top Gun Weapons School.

Despite the BGM-34F’s unexpected success the Navy and Air Force had no interest in an unmanned fighter, and the program was never pursued.


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