FARNBOROUGH, England — Maverick’s next winger could be a drone.
In the movies, fighter pilots are portrayed as highly trained military aviators with the skills and experience to defeat opponents in thrilling dogfights.
New technologies, however, are set to redefine what it means to be a ‘Top Gun’, as algorithms, data and machinery play a bigger role in the cockpit – changes hinted at in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’. “.
“A lot of people are talking about, you know, the way forward, maybe getting the pilot out of the plane,” said 1st Lt. Walker Gall, an F-35 pilot with the 48th Air Force Wing. American fighter based at RAF Lakenheath in England. “It’s definitely not something any of us are looking forward to.”
“I would like to keep my job as long as possible, but I mean, it’s hard to argue with newer and newer technologies,” he said. “And if that’s the way of the future, that’s how it is. But I’m just here to enjoy it while I can.
The future of fighter pilots was on display this week at the Farnborough International Airshow near London, one of the world’s largest aviation, defense and aerospace shows.
Defense contractors explained how artificial intelligence and other technologies will be used in new fighter jets as global military delegations browsed mockups of missiles, drones and fighter jets. Several billion dollars are at stake as countries update their military fleets or increase their defense procurement budgets amid growing geopolitical tensions.
The original 1986 film ‘Top Gun’ follows famed Tom Cruise pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell through fighter weapons training school. In the sequel, an aging Maverick, now a test pilot, learns that the top-secret hypersonic plane he’s been working on is being canceled so the funding can be used for an unmanned drone program.
This is a debate that has been playing out for years in the real world. Drones have been widely used in the war between Russia and Ukraine and other modern conflicts, which raises the question of how necessary it is for human pilots to fly expensive combat aircraft and to other aircraft – or whether unmanned aerial vehicles could do the job.
At the Farnborough Air Show, experts said the future of aerial warfare is likely to be the collaboration of manned and unmanned aircraft.
One day, fighter pilots will have “a drone plane that flies like a loyal wingman” under their control, said Jon Norman, vice president of missiles and defense at Raytheon Technologies Corp.
Norman, a retired US Air Force pilot, said he complained about ground-controlled drones getting in his way when flying fighter jets.
The latest communication systems allow fighters, drones and other aircraft to talk to each other, he said.
Technology has already removed the need for a second person to sit in the back to operate the radar – a role portrayed in the original “Top Gun” movie by the character Goose.
It will continue to play a bigger role in the cockpit, Raytheon executives said. Artificial intelligence will analyze tons of data from sensors placed on planes, drones, the ground or missiles flying through the air to give pilots in the sky and commanders back at headquarters a better idea of the field of battle.
In future battles, the AI could allow a pilot to send an armed drone close to an enemy position “and fire it at will”, Norman added.
But it is too early to write an epitaph to the pilot.
“If we had had this conversation 20 years ago, almost everyone was certain that some (drones) would serve in a replacement role for combat aircraft. It just didn’t happen,” said Richard Aboulafia, chief executive of consultancy AeroDynamic Advisory.
These days, he said, drones primarily support manned military aircraft, which “allows them to come out with a bigger fighter plane punch.”
There was speculation that the F-35 fighter, which entered service in 2015, would be the last manned fighter jet, said Gareth Jennings, aviation editor at defense intelligence provider Janes. “But nobody says that anymore.”
The F-35, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., is a stealth fighter that is part of the current generation of warplanes. There is a next generation of concept-stage fighters offering even more high-tech advancements, including potentially unmanned versions, but they won’t arrive until the next decade at the earliest.
Gall, a recent graduate of fighter pilot training school, said the F-35 is easy to fly and technology would likely make its successors even easier. But he stressed that the role of the fighter pilot would remain intense.
While this role isn’t going away anytime soon, the Pentagon is working to transform it.
The Air Combat Evolution program, led by the Pentagon’s DARPA research agency, is working on integrating artificial intelligence into warfighting, including designing an aircraft that can fly itself in aerial combat.
The program has already performed a live air combat simulation, pitting a virtual aircraft piloted by an AI agent against a human pilot. If all goes well, the researchers plan to conduct live air combat with AI-equipped aircraft by 2024.
Experts, however, are skeptical the pilots will be knocked out of the cockpit in the near future.
“I don’t think we’ll be at the point where we don’t need fighter pilots for a few decades,” said Jennings, the aviation editor. “Unmanned technology and the public’s willingness to accept not having a human in the loop just isn’t there, and won’t be for at least another 30 years or so.”
• Video journalist Cassandra Allwood contributed to this story.
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