In October 2016, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Navy gave the public a glimpse into the future of aerial combat in the skies above Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. Three Navy F/A-18s each carried two innocuous looking pods. At a given signal, dozens of 6.5-inch, 3D-printed Perdix microdrones were released from the pods. Though barely visible individually, they gathered into a ferocious swarm as their 2.6-inch pusher propellers made a deeply unsettling hum. Like nature’s swarms, the Perdix drones operated with a distributed intelligence relying on simple rules and the movement of other drones rather than preprogrammed flight paths. Instead of being remotely controlled by a pilot, the swarm awaited tasking for missions it would execute autonomously—a feature demonstrated that day as the swarm darted from point to point on the test site.
Demonstrations like the one at China Lake prove that Third Offset technologies are reaching a level of early maturity that moves conversations about their employment from science fiction to real-world operational concepts. This technological maturation coincides with a long overdue U.S. admission that China is a strategic competitor with hostile revisionist intent.1 The United States should be looking with a wary eye at China’s vigorous pursuit of autonomous platforms and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled combat systems. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) especially has embraced information age technologies as a way to eclipse the United States by leap-frogging in cutting edge technologies where the joint force has yet to establish an advantage.2
The next generation of naval aviators is training for a fight where U.S. technological overmatch is no longer a given, peer competitors such as China will credibly contest U.S. presence, and mature Third Offset technologies will change the character of air power. Thriving in this environment will not hinge on a single piece of kit or new hardware, but on the ability to rapidly integrate emerging technologies and creatively develop operational concepts for their employment—a point hammered home in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.3 U.S. naval aviators must strive to be aces for all seasons—clear sighted in the purpose of air dominance and power projection but adaptable in methods, unfazed by change, and ready to learn faster than the adversary.
Drone swarms—like the ones used at the 2018 Olympic Games—can be deployed in the hundreds, act as decoys for ship defense, or even carry out suicide missions against enemy surface-to-air missile sites.
Trends in Aerial Warfare
China Lake was a product of three convergent technological trends the Third Offset seeks to leverage—trends that are changing the character of aerial warfare: maturation of off-board autonomy, advances in on-board aircraft systems, and an increase in stand-off engagements.
Maturation of off-board autonomy. Autonomy is creating new possibilities for a variety of aerial combat systems that are differentiated by the size, number, and capability of the individual aircraft. In its integration plan for autonomous systems, the Air Force differentiates between numerous minibots acting in “swarms” and fewer, but more capable, aircraft acting as “loyal wingmen” to manned platforms.4
A system like the Perdix swarm demonstrated at China Lake arguably functions more like a highly capable cluster munition. These cheap, expendable drones can be deployed in the hundreds to conduct basic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), act as decoys for ship defense, or when fitted with explosives, carry out suicide missions against enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. Such systems are too numerous for individual control, instead executing preprogrammed algorithms as directed in aggregate by the pilot.
Decreasing the number of individual aircraft while increasing their size and capability enters the realm of “loyal wingmen” and the “flock.”5 The loyal wingmen could take the form of autonomous retrofitted legacy F/A-18s teamed with a manned F-35. These F/A-18s would act as bomb trucks, deepening the pilot’s magazine. An idea even has been floated for an arsenal plane that would make larger aircraft such as the AC-130 or B-52 autonomous to supplement existing fighter-bombers.6 While loyal wingmen augment existing aircraft, they remain semiautonomous because they still require direct control by the pilot.
By comparison, a flock consists of anywhere from 6 to 24 highly capable autonomous aircraft led by a manned command aircraft.7 Combat effort would be distributed equally between the manned command aircraft and the flocking aircraft, which could be specialized for strike, reconnaissance, or air defense suppression. Flocking aircraft would use AI and deep learning to act with a degree of independence. Flocking aircraft could execute more abstract mission-type commands such as “cover my six,” “identify all airports in this grid square,” or “screen ahead and mission kill all SAM sites on my flight path.” The early technologies for flocking exist, and programs such as DARPA’s Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment are in the process of making them operational for frontline use.8
On-board aircraft systems advances. This trend increasingly relieves pilots of the mechanical aspects of aviation. Modern aircraft such as the F/A-18 Hornet, B-2 Spirit, or MV-22 Osprey, for example, are designed on the edge of aerodynamic instability and require substantial on-board automation in daily use. Without sophisticated “fly-by-wire” computer systems to interpret pilot commands and translate them into complex control surface adjustments, these aircraft would be almost impossible to fly.
More complex tasks such as tailhook carrier landings, once the sole remit of naval aviators, also are feeling the effects of automation. The Maritime Augmented Guidance and Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies (Magic Carpet) system developed by the Office of Naval Research is a series of software tweaks to the F/A-18 that profoundly simplify landing on a carrier. By automating most of the approach, the Magic Carpet system reduces the number of pilot control inputs in the final 18 seconds of landing from 300 to 20, resulting in an uncanny level of precision and consistency in carrier landings.9 More of this on-board automation can be expected as ever-more sophisticated fifth- and sixth-generation aircraft are procured.
The widely held concern is that such systems will render pilots redundant and that aircraft will fly themselves. This concern overlooks the fact that systems such as Magic Carpet automate tasks that are mechanical and repetitive. By divesting pilots of such tasks, these systems free pilots to develop and hone competencies that are uniquely human—empathy to understand enemy motivations and intentions, creativity to adapt to changing tactical circumstances, and a contextual understanding of commander’s intent, which keeps larger operational objectives at the fore.
Increase in stand-off engagements. Modern aerial combat remains a dynamic competition between pilots to achieve superior situational awareness. The ultimate expression of superior situational awareness is the coveted “first look, first shot, first kill” advantage whereby a pilot can engage the enemy before being detected.10 Advances in on-board sensor, missile, and communications technology means pilots increasingly achieve this advantage well before an enemy is in visual range. This trend has accelerated with the advent of networked warfare, which allows highly capable long-range surveillance platforms such as AWACS/E-2 Hawkeye to identify enemy aircraft and provide firing solutions for targets beyond the range of a fighter’s smaller on-board sensors.11
As sensor ranges increased, maneuvering flight engagements and gun use declined in favor of stand-off missile shots.12 Recognizing this trend, China’s PLA Air Force is investing heavily in indigenously designed medium- to long-range air-to-air missiles optimized for standoff engagements.13 The extended range of these missiles will allow China to threaten U.S. surveillance platforms and tankers, which remain crucial power-projection enablers for short-ranged fighter-bombers. The increasing distance between aircraft in such a scenario diminishes the importance of traditionally prized fighter attributes such as speed and maneuverability—traits that force designers to make substantial compromises in other areas.
Heightened value will be placed on aircraft able to hide using stealth, armed with deep magazines to engage multiple adversaries, equipped with robust sensors (infrared and radar) to detect the enemy first, and with long-range capability to independently penetrate deep within contested airspace.14 These aircraft will eschew direct engagement with the enemy in a conventional dogfight in favor of performing stand-off attacks, as well as use advanced sensors to provide network and surveillance capabilities to friendly aircraft—a tactic ably demonstrated by the F-35’s impressive 20:1 kill ratio at the 2017 Red Flag exercise.15
In the medium term, these three trends only will accelerate as requisite technologies mature and early autonomous platforms such as the MQ-25 Stingray and MQ-8 Fire Scout are procured for the carrier air wing. While trends in on-board automation and increasing engagement range percolated for decades, it is only in the past 20 years that advances in robotics and software have made these autonomous systems viable. Experiments in teaming these early platforms with existing naval aircraft such as the P-8, F/A-18, and F-35 will pave the way for future procurement of more multifaceted and capable systems.
An Ace for All Seasons
Any conceivable high-end contingency with the PLA would incorporate elements of all three of these trends. China’s demonstrated ability to shoot down satellites means U.S. forces must be able to operate without
real-time theater-wide data links. To avoid putting U.S. carriers at risk, flights of manned/unmanned teams would launch to penetrate contested airspace with no expectation of communication beyond short-range, jam-resistant line-of-site data links.16 Such a scenario puts the onus on flight leaders to understand a commander’s operational objectives and act on initiative without immediate guidance from higher echelons. Aircraft with long ranges, stealth, and deep magazines give flight leaders more opportunities to engage targets and adapt to evolving circumstances.
Autonomous systems will act as force multipliers, giving flight leaders more options and capabilities to effect favorable outcomes on the ground or in the air. Some may take the form of hundreds of small expendable decoy microdrones operating in a swarm to blind the adversary, a 21st-century version of throwing sand in their eyes. Others may take the form of agile skirmishing aircraft that bound ahead of the formation to flush out the enemy and soften them up before the main force arrives. Still others may be “special teams” platforms that have multiple, nested autonomous systems dedicated to a hyperspecialized mission such as bunker busting or SAM suppression.
Whatever the specifics of the scenario, the goal remains to fight and win tactical aerial engagements that can be translated into operational gains and strategic victory. The challenge lies in recognizing the contours of Third Offset technological change and adapting operational concepts or developing new ones. Naval aviation exists to dominate the air and project power in service of U.S. national interests. Being an ace for all seasons means accomplishing this mission irrespective of platforms or hidebound practices.
Capitalizing on these three trends is less a question of technology than of culture. It will require a collective shift in perspectives on automation. Viewing autonomous systems as replacements for manned aviation creates fear, defensiveness, and mistrust—a view that has created tension and resistance to unmanned platforms within Marine Corps aviation.17 Autonomous systems must be recast as enhancing an aviator’s uniquely human competitive advantage to spark conversations about the potential of these platforms and how they can best serve air crews. It must be made clear that human pilots will remain the centerpiece of combat, and that these autonomous platforms will offer them greater standoff from the enemy, better survivability, and more lethality.18 Greater transparency and communication from senior leaders on how autonomous platforms will be integrated and the implications for careers in aviation can allay some of these concerns and cushion “future shock.”
A related opportunity is a reimagining of trust between man and machine. The early stages of this trust will come as platforms such as the MQ-25 Stingray and MQ-8 Fire Scout are integrated into air wings. These platforms are slated to have semiautonomous capabilities like takeoff and landing but still will be dependent on shipboard or airborne controllers. Nevertheless, taking autonomous platforms from abstract ideas to concrete aircraft on the flight line will build manned/unmanned experience and lay the foundation for more capable unmanned systems in the future. Getting these early platforms right will be crucial—if crews have limited exposure or these platforms do not deliver, crews will at best marginalize these capabilities or at worst actively resist their integration into the air wing.
There will be growing pains as attitudes change and trust builds, but the Navy should not lose sight of the fact that all these trends are converging to empower individual naval aviators in unimaginable and exciting ways. In the near future, every aviator will have the chance to be a version of Tony Stark à la Iron Man 3, in which Stark controls dozens of autonomously piloted Iron Man suits. Instructing them to “target heat signatures and disable with extreme prejudice,” Stark commands the whole engagement by redirecting suits and adapting to changing tactical circumstances. What was once possible only on the silver screen may soon be found on the flight line—preferably on the U.S. flight line rather than that of its adversaries. Keeping the United States at the forefront of emerging technologies means training aces for all seasons—naval aviators not content just to operate machinery, but ready to lead autonomous systems into battle.
This essay is the First Prize winner in the Emerging and Disruptive Techbologies Essay Contest Sponsored with Leidos.
1. James N. Mattis, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America,” Department of Defense, 29 January 2018, 5.
2. Elsa B. Kania, “Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power,” Center for a New American Security (November 2017), 4.
3. Mattis, “National Defense Strategy,” 10.
4. U.S. Air Force, “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS) Flight Plan: 2016–2036,” 30 April 2016.
5. Dave Blair and Daniel Wassmuth, “Loyal Wingman, Flocking, and Swarming: New Models of Distributed Airpower,” War on the Rocks, 21 February 2018.
6. Kyle Mizokami, “The Pentagon Is Building the ‘Arsenal Plane,’ a Giant Flying Battlewagon,” Popular Mechanics, 2 February 2016.
7. Blair and Wassmuth, “Loyal Wingman, Flocking, and Swarming.”
8. Ibid. Jean-Charles Lede, “Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE),” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, www.darpa.mil/program/collaborative-operations-in-denied-environment.
9. Megan Eckstein, “Navy’s MAGIC CARPET Simplifies Carrier Landings; Interim Fielding This Fall,” USNI News, 30 June 2016.
10. John Stillion, “Trends in Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 14 April 2015, 2.
11. Ibid., 27.
12. Ibid., 24.
13. Douglas Barrie, “It’s Not Your Father’s PLAAF: China’s Push to Develop Domestic Air- to-Air Missiles,” War on the Rocks, 21 February 2018.
14. Stillion, “Trends in Air-to-Air Combat,” 42.
15. Tom Demerly, “Red Flag Confirmed F-35 Dominance with a 20:1 Kill Ratio,” The Aviationist, 28 February 2017.
16. Mark Olsen, “Fight, Survive, Win—Imagining Multi-Domain Battle,” The Strategy Bridge, 23 May 2017.
17. Olivia Garard, “Marine Corps Aviation: Let the ‘Guardian Angel’ Be Your Moneyball and the VMUs Your Oakland As,” War on the Rocks, 31 July 2017.
18. Paul Scharre, “Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm,” Center for a New American Security (October 2014), 5.
Lieutenant Jbeily is a National Security Fellow with the Clements Center for National Security and a 2015 Marshall Scholar. He is training to be a naval aviator in Corpus Christi, Texas.