The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System has taken flight from the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. These successful test launches guarantee that the future of combat aircraft will never be the same.
The question is, what will the future hold? Will these UCAS’ provide the next step in US air superiority, tipping the balance even farther in our favor and thus saving lives? Will the operational launch of UCAS’ create an imbalance of power that will instead make it easier to order offensive strike planes into the skies? Or, will the very design of autonomous planes usher in the fantasy world of Sci-Fi movies where Skynet-like organizations begin to rule the skies?
From the viewpoint of:
The Air-Frame Designer – Without the sentient organic blob in the plane, the design of UCAS’ air frame is considerably easier. Everything from size, to weight, to materials can be designed for maximum effect rather than for life support. Evasion capability, electronic absorption, material selection, even noise and vibration requirements can be re-evaluated to maximize stealth and offensive effect. Life is good for the Air-Frame designer.
The Operations Manager – X number of planes will be required to create operational success given a Y loss of planes. The math becomes much simpler when loss of pilot life is no longer a consideration in operational success. Operation’s managers will be salivating at the possibilities.
The Software Designer – Games, simulators, drones, and manned aircraft all have advanced auto-pilot-like software. Operational control of the UCAS’ will be the simple part, creating the logic engine to handle every operational possibility during flight will be the hard part. No amount of code can prepare for the challenge. No code is foolproof. Bugs happen, unexpected flight situations happen, and air control failures happen. Will the UCAS’ mistake a wedding party firing guns into the air for a Taliban attack? Will anti-aircraft fire from a mosque trigger a missile launch response into a crowded neighborhood? The software designer will have his/her hands full.
The Politicians – Like MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), the policy that held us back from a global conflagration in the 60’s, manned aircraft held politicians back from quickly entering war zones. When the loss of pilot’s lives entered into the equation, the ability to sell the value of the target to the public was drastically reduced. With fleets of UCAS’ in the operational theater, the decision to launch an offensive attack comes much easier. The very paradigm and psychological introspection by which we engage in war could change. Throughout history, when launching war became easier, war mentality followed. Are we different? Can we create superior weapon systems and never use them? Or will having a clear superiority reduce the need to use them?
The Sci-Fi Dreamers – In the movies, the planes develop a sense of self preservation and turn on their creators. Philosophical angst runs amok by the citizens. In the real world, the software geeks already rule the skies. When a cruise missile launches no one hides under the covers thinking it will develop a conscious on the way to its target. The UCAS’ is not much more than a two-way cruise missile (in the sense of operational control). Fear should not be generated from software becoming sentient, but it should come from malicious developers. Could a rogue developer with an inner hatred of his country build in seemingly innocuous code that could alter flight or operational integrity? Could a misplaced sense of patriotism by a commander or politician order a strike where war had not been declared?
Are we prepared for a future where UCAS’ rule the skies – are you?