The unmanned Air Force

Planes don’t need pilots. At least not the kind that have to sit inside the plane.

For several years now, any observer of military aviation could see that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were going to change combat in the same way that carrier-based aircraft changed naval warfare in the years before World War II. Then as now, the old guard wasn’t looking for drastic change. Air Force generals are pilots, and pilots like to fly. A pilot, like an astronaut, can always be counted on to exaggerate the value of the human in the cockpit. I can’t blame them for wanting to fly, but when it stops making military sense, I’m not so keen to foot the bill. Like an aging photographer praising Kodachrome film, a general may swear that the old ways are the best ways, but only a fool would bet against the UAV.

What’s different this year is that the everybody, including the generals, realizes the change is happening. It often takes a war to force through big changes in doctrine, and between Iraq and Afghanistan we have all the war we need. Here’s US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, speaking earlier this year:

This is one of those inflection points, one of those times when the whole path of history shifts … That’s what’s happening, and the question is whether the United States Air Force wants to be on that wave or left behind.

Now that we’re past pushback at the top, things can happen quickly. There will be new career paths, new facilities, and a better path toward operational excellence. Most exciting to me, as an old aerospace engineer, is the rapidly evolving vehicle itself. UAVs used to be either big model airplanes or regular planes with the pilot pulled out. Now we’ve got bird bots like the Raven, and this remarkable hummingbird-sized flapping bot. And there’s the solar-powered Vulture that can stay aloft for five years. BotJunkie ran a nice gallery of new UAVs to give you a sense of the variety.

Finally, watch this video about military insects. It’s a little George Jetson over-the-top, but something like this is coming sooner than you think. Jane! Stop this crazy thing!

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