Artificial intelligence software is getting crazy smart, so who needs dedicated hardware purpose-built to fly autonomously, like these MQ-9 Reaper drones? Not the US Air Force, apparently, which has managed to successfully morph an F-16 fighter jet into a combat-capable drone by cramming autonomous battle software into its cockpit.
Over a two-week trial recently conducted by the Air Force Research Laboratory, an experimental Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter autonomously planned and executed a practice air-to-ground strike mission, reacting to the changing combat environment around it, using AI to help it act as a “surrogate” Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV).
Why surrogate? The Air Force envisions future UCAVs, upcycled from traditional, human-flown fighters, as flying alongside crewed aircraft on combat missions. The recent test period was the second phase of the USAF’s Have Raider trial, part of the Air Force’s Loyal Wingman project.
For Have Raider II, the experimental F-16 autonomously flew in formation with a lead aircraft, conducted a ground-attack mission, and then automatically rejoined the lead aircraft after the mission was completed. Shawn Whitcomb, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works Loyal Wingman program manager, said in a media statement that the Have Raider II trial was a “critical step to enabling future Loyal Wingman technology development and operational transition programs.”
While the US Air Force has used old fighter jets as “drones” for decades, they were essentially just dumb target practice objects. The USAF’s future plans for its fighters obviously include much smarter use cases.
The Air Force says that this “manned/unmanned teaming” means pilots who lead UCAV’s will encounter less stress, allowing them to focus more on planning and mission management. The Air Force also foresees UCAV’s flying into “hazardous mission environments” and staying over targets longer without pilot fatigue.
This is all thanks to what the Air Force calls Open Mission Systems software, which allows for integration of numerous software components, built by various providers, into one, autonomous system.
Of course, any future the USAF might want in autonomous weapons relies heavily on any decision the United Nations makes about the legality of killer robots, and how they will fit in with international law.
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