Will Drones Replace Fighter Pilots?

Will drones replace fighter pilots? Could they ever replicate the fast reflexes and intuitive manoeuvring of a well-trained human pilot? Let’s find out…

New technologies such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (also known as drones) are being used everywhere. Whether it is for photo-shooting wedding events, delivering an Amazon parcel, or helping in search operations, drones are being used extensively in all such settings.

Besides this, drones are even being used in the field of combat. Since they bring many benefits to the battlefield like flying for days without refueling, offering quality aerial images, and particularly minimizing loss of lives, drones are a great addition to modern conflicts. 

Now, the question is will drones completely replace a human pilot operating fighter jets? Most probably not. A manned fighter plane will continue its dominance in the next decade and after that.

Will Fighter Pilots Be Replaced?

Many airforce experts believe that though drones have made significant gains in the combat field, drones cannot replace manned aircraft. Even, autonomous drones which many experts believe can replace fighter jets in the future, cannot do it. 

The manned fighter aircraft will continue its dominance in the near future.

The reason is that a battlefield is full of unpredictability. Adversaries use out-of-the-box strategies to outfox their enemies.

In such situations, the human brain with its creative thinking can face such challenges which an autonomous drone aircraft cannot. 

Autonomous drones are drones that don’t require human input. The autonomous software programmed in the drones helps them navigate. 

These drones excel in missions where the rules are clearly defined. In unpredictable scenarios, decisions need to be made quickly to overcome the situation that autonomous drones can’t while a fighter pilot can.

Are Fighter Pilots In Demand? 

At present and in the future as well there is no indication that fighter pilots will become obsolete. The demand for fighter pilots remains high because the US Air Force has and is inducting many fighter aircraft which will serve up for many years.

For example, the current F-35 aircraft is expected to be operational until 2070. The armed forces will induct an F-35 pilot to operate such aircraft which means that fighter pilots will be in demand even in the near future.

Will Drones Replace Fighter Jets?

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX believes that drones have a bigger role to play in the future of air combat. In a room packed with Air Force personnel, he announced that the fighter jets era has passed and drones will take over.

To replace manned fighter aircraft, UAVs (drones) need to be autonomous. A lot of people in the airforce think autonomous drones cannot perfectly execute the job on the battlefield. 

They have cited examples from Tesla itself to validate their stance.

Tesla’s self-driving cars that work on autonomous software navigate highways reasonably well. But when it comes to cities, they face difficulties.

In cities, several events occur simultaneously which are impossible to predict and the car’s autonomous software sometimes faults. These cars work efficiently in environments where the rules are clearly defined.

Similarly, autonomous drones work perfectly in situations where the rules are clearly defined. They are programmed to perform a specific task.

Other than the task if any other event comes up on the battlefield they fail to perform. On the other hand, fighter jets operated by qualified fighter pilots with their creative thinking can face such events. 

Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Fighter Pilots?

Artificial Intelligence-powered drones won’t replace combat pilots but rather drones will partner with them on the battlefield. In today’s modern conflicts, military aviators like fighter pilots need a loyal wingman to be successful on the battlefield which is an AI-powered drone.

In the movie “Top Gun: Maverick”, Tom Cruise is a test pilot who is working on a hypersonic plane which gets cancelled because the funds are diverted for a pilotless drone program. In the real world also there is debate whether fighter jets are required or drones alone are enough on the battlefield.

The experts from Farnborough International Airshow which is the world’s biggest aviation and defense expo answered future warfare will be a combination of manned and unmanned aircraft. They will be working with each other on the battlefield.

In addition to this, defense contractors at the expo explained how artificial intelligence will work with modern jet fighters.

At the expo, one of the Raytheon executives, Jon Norman vice president of the company said that fighter pilots will have AI-powered drone aircraft flying as loyal wingman. The drones will be under the control of the pilots.

Another expert at the expo, Mr. Richard Aboulafia said that drones today are supporting manned military aircraft thus providing more combat aircraft punch.

Gareth Jennings an aviation editor recalled that there was speculation that an F-35 fighter would be the last manned fighter jet but today nobody says that. He also added that for the next few decades there will be a need for pilot fighters.

Can Artificial Intelligence Fly A Plane?

In commercial aircraft, aircraft controls are gradually being operated by AI technology. For example, the autopilot is one such AI-powered feature that flies a plane to an extent.

That said, a completely autonomous commercial plane without human intervention may be risky. Passengers would also think twice about boarding a plane operated by a machine.

On the other hand, in a combat mission, AI-powered autonomous aircraft was used. During the Gulf War, AI-powered autonomous aircraft which had no pilot and were not controlled by anyone were used to target an enemy position.

Predator Drone VS Fighter Jet

  • UAVs are less expensive than fighter jets. UAVs like predator drones typically cost between 3 million dollars and 4 million dollars compared to fighter jets where an F-35A costs around 160 million dollars. 

Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are a few popular companies that manufacture predator drones.

  • These drones are unmanned hence there is no loss of life whereas fighter jets are operated by pilots and there are chances of a pilot losing his/her life. On the other hand, the presence of a pilot in a fighter jet helps to assess the ground reality and make quick decisions accordingly, which is difficult with these types of drones. 
  • Predator drones can operate beyond 30 hrs whereas fighter jets require refueling at regular intervals.

Will There Be Fighter Pilots In The Future?

Many military experts believe that there will be fighter pilots in the future. As mentioned previously, they are inducting many jet fighters that would serve up for decades, so they require fighter pilots. 

Drones will only be a part of the air combat that will be under the control of fighter pilots. The fighter pilots will perform certain tasks and use drones to perform other tasks.

Recently in 2021, the Air force Research Laboratory conducted a manned and unmanned teaming through its Skyborg program. They tested a Skyborg drone that will help human pilots on the battlefield.

FAQ Relating To “Will Drones Replace Fighter Pilots”

Can Unmanned Aircraft Replace Manned Aircraft?

Unmanned aerial vehicles may not replace manned aircraft. The United States Airforce has stated multiple times that they are not looking to replace unmanned drones with manned fighter pilots anytime soon.

They have extensively used these drones for specific missions for years but are not planning to replace them with manned aircraft. They indicated that they would rather use unmanned aircraft as wingmen for fighter pilots to protect them and aid them.

Will Drones Replace Helicopter Pilots?

Before Drone technology came into existence, helicopters were used for capturing low-altitude aerial footage and transporting goods. After drones were introduced, many of the tasks that helicopter pilots performed can now be performed by drones.

In search and rescue operations, monitoring wildlife, and aerial footage, drones are being extensively used. On the other, transporting heavy goods is not possible with drones, helicopters are the best options for such activities.

Overall, drones can be replaced in some tasks but not for all tasks.

Have Fighter Pilots Become Obsolete?

The first time when drones were introduced in air combat many thought drones will replace fighter jets and eventually fighter pilots will become obsolete. At present that is not the case.

It is unlikely that fighter pilots will become obsolete for decades to come. This is because the US Airforce has F-35 designs that will be in service until 2070.

Apart from this, autonomous drones are not yet capable of taking decisions according to the situation on the battlefield whereas fighter pilots have the capability to take such decisions.

How Can Autonomous Wingmen Help Fighter Pilots In The Next War?

Imagine if there is a war in the future, the war would be different from previous wars. Along with fighter aircraft, a swarm of drones will be accompanying them.

These drones will be managed with minimal direction by the fighter pilot. They will go ahead and map out targets and make use of electronic war deterrent capabilities like jamming enemy signals.

Apart from this, the drones will launch missiles at the target and destroy enemies. They also have the capability of launching short-range cruise missiles.

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