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The Military United States

The Air Force's Love For Fighter Pilots Is Too Big To Fail 253

Posted by Soulskill
from the people-aren't-as-expensive-as-robots dept.
Daniel_Stuckey writes "Just look at what's been going on throughout the Air Force. It's as if drones pose such a threat to traditional means of aerial warfare that the flying service's historically kneejerk resistance to anything too closely aligned with sweeping technological change finds it bristling today at prospective gamechangers of the unmanned sort. Nevermind that the AF's active remotely-piloted combat aircraft outnumber its active manned bomber inventory by about 2-to-1. For perspective, as Lt. Col. Lawrence Spinetta writes in the July issue of the Air & Space Power Journal, an official USAF publication, consider that 'RPA [remotely-piloted aircraft] personnel enjoy one wing command' while fighter pilots control 26. In other words, 'the ratio of wing-command opportunities for RPA pilots versus those who fly manned combat aircraft is a staggering 1-to-26.' Such personnel policies that seemingly favor manned standbys are part and parcel of deep-rooted, institutional stigmas. In a 2008 speech, General Norton Schwarz, who served as AF chief from 2008 to 2012, did not mince words when he said that this systemic obsession with all-things manned has turned the Air Force's swelling drone ranks into a 'leper colony.'"
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The Air Force's Love For Fighter Pilots Is Too Big To Fail

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  • by kk49 (829669) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @06:28PM (#44231553)

    You have to be/have been a pilot or navigator to captain an aircraft carrier. (I wrote a paper about this in the 90s...) and the US hard-on for aircraft carriers ain't going away anytime soon.

    • > aircraft carriers ain't going away anytime soon

      Gotta have someplace to park the drones, right? How are the rolling drones for repairing the flying drones coming along?

  • Nobody wants to see some pocket-protector-wearing nerd trying to bed Kelly McGillis. Plus the fight scenes would've been incredibly boring.

    • Nobody wants to see some pocket-protector-wearing nerd trying to bed Kelly McGillis.

      As opposed to a midget in elevator shoes?

      Plus the fight scenes would've been incredibly boring.

      I don't know. Seems to me that the whole video-game-that's-really-combat angle has worked in the past...

      Besides, I'd say that since drones can pull g forces that would kill or incapacitate pilots, those fight scenes would kick ass.

      • There is a problem with the defeats becoming more or less meaningless, though. If you lose Goose as a drone pilot, Goose just gets another drone. Then Maverick and Iceman just see continue to see each other as assholes
    • I googled her and now I'm sad that I did.

  • by Ereth (194013) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @06:38PM (#44231661) Homepage

    As a former Naval Aircrewman, and an all around "flying is awesome" kind of geek (I knew I wanted to fly when I was 3), I have to say I understand the reticence. Flying is awesome. It's hard to give up something you love doing.

    At the same time, the cost-benefit analysis is swinging/has swung towards unmanned craft. They can have performance envelopes that won't allow a human inside. They can have significant cost savings in not having to protect the human inside.

    Situational Awareness is big, but we do that with the Electronic Battlefield now. Some years ago I was very much in the "you'll never replace a pilot in the cockpit" side of the argument. Now.. I think the F-35, a fighter I so desperately wanted, should be eliminated, and replaced with drones. Times change. Technology changes. We all love the Sopwith Camel and the P-51, but you wouldn't use either one in a modern war.

    It's going to be a difficult political move, but it's the right move, long term. And it took me many years before I could say that without gritting my teeth first. :)

    • by king neckbeard (1801738) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @07:01PM (#44231901)
      You are forgetting the politics side of things. Anybody we've been fighting could be wiped out by the tech we had decades ago. The battles the US military is engaged in involve hearts and minds, and drones are very bad from that perspective.
      • The battles the US military is engaged in involve hearts and minds, and drones are very bad from that perspective.

        Yes, but manned aircraft generally aren't any better. In some ways, they're worse, because the drones make sure of their target and avoid civilian casualties in ways that would be too risky for manned aircraft.

        • Drones avoid civilian casualties? That's certainly not the reputation they are getting. It's hard to find good numbers, because 'militants' are often vaguely defined, but there are certainly significant amounts of civilians killed, and it extends to extreme the viewpoint of archers as being cowards, dating back to at least the Iliad.
      • by timq (240600)

        The battles the US military is engaged in involve hearts and minds, and drones are very bad from that perspective.

        What you say is obviously true, but this shallow truth is shrouding the much more profound one that if you want to win "hearts and minds" you don't wage war in the first place.

    • that's what they said about guided missiles. It's the future, guns are obsolete because jets are so fast now, all air combat will be beyond visual range.

      Remote control drones are fine when your adversaries are third-world terrorists hiding in a mud hut. Hell you don't even need any fighters, they have no air force; air superiority is yours by default. All you need is bombers and tankers.

      But what happens when you fight a more advanced enemy? Drones are useless without radio, and radio is vulnerable to jammi

      • by mbkennel (97636) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @07:34PM (#44232197)

        "that's what they said about guided missiles. It's the future, guns are obsolete because jets are so fast now, all air combat will be beyond visual range."

        It wasn't completely true in 1968. Today, it actually is. Simulations and training are more realistic---the side which can get off targeted missiles before being targeted wins.

        Guided missiles are single-purpose drones.

        • Actually it is a lot worse than that. In the UK at least there was a claim back then that bombers had been made obsolete due to the existence of ballistic missiles. Since the job of the air to air defenses was to prevent bombing, fighters were supposed to be a waste of time and resources.

          Then again this was also the time when Khrushchev had his pet missile tank project.

        • by 0123456 (636235)

          Simulations and training are more realistic---the side which can get off targeted missiles before being targeted wins.

          And then, in the real world, you get rules of engagement requiring you to positively identify the other guy before you can fire...

          • by timeOday (582209)
            That will go away real quick if and when the next real air war comes along, such that friendly fire isn't the main threat.
      • by timeOday (582209)

        Drones are useless without radio

        Define "drone." ICBMs aren't remote-controlled; they have used celestial navigation since the early 50's, similar to how ancient mariners navigated.

        The reason we use so much human supervision now is from an abundance of caution, and because the conflicts are small enough that it is possible to do. If there were another world war, you would see within a few years far more automated swarming systems that in turn would overwhelm anything but a highly autonomous response.

    • by icebike (68054)

      Its all good, having both around is the best idea.

      Going one direction just puts you in a position of weakness.

      Drones of today simply can't carry the payload, and aren't likely to any time soon.

      Take a look at your average F/A 18E's ordinance capability [wikipedia.org]:

      F18
      Hardpoints: 11 total: 2× wingtips, 6× under-wing, and 3× under-fuselage with a capacity of
      17,750 lb (8,050 kg) external fuel and ordnance, plus a WIDE variety of ordnance.
      Crew of 1.

      B17 Bomber
      Short range missions (400 mi): 8,000 lb (3,600 kg)
      L

      • by mbkennel (97636)

        "Nobody has ever been in a dogfight with a drone. That day may come, but when it does the drone is going to
        look a lot more like a F18 than a Predator."

        It will look more like a B-2 on a diet.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northrop_Grumman_X-47B [wikipedia.org]

      • "Nobody has ever been in a dogfight with a drone."

        Arguably, anybody hit by a guided missile has just lost a dogfight with a small, suicidal, drone...

        The WWII examples were (with the possible exception of a few very-late-war German prototypes) all human controlled, RF or wire; but the US had IR-seekers in something resembling usable shape by the 1960s and they've only improved since then.

    • It's going to be a difficult political move, but it's the right move, long term. And it took me many years before I could say that without gritting my teeth first. :)

      Unfortunately, military doctrines don't change as easily as soldier's minds. In every major war there has been a side that embraced the new, and a side that kept with the tactics of the last war. And you may well guess which side won.

      If the United States doesn't get on board with drone warfare, somebody else will, and then we'll be a sitting duck.

    • by bobbied (2522392)

      I'm going to have to disagree with you because there simply are things that a manned aircraft can do that simply cannot be done by a remotely piloted one.

      Sure, you can tell something to go fly over there and blow up that spot or even program it to go find a specific target you can define well enough that a computer can find the desired target. Cruse missiles are GREAT stand off weapons and we've been doing this kind of thing for years, albeit in a pretty expensive way. We've vastly improved on such weapo

      • by Zenin (266666)

        Manned aircraft don't suffer from the communications issue. You can explain to a pilot what you want him to do, send him up in an armed aircraft and wait for him to come back. He can manage the task if the target moves or shows up in the wrong place. He can react to unforeseen circumstances and modify how he executes his task and still achieve the goals. You don't have to watch what he's doing to make sure the mission continues and you don't have to talk to him along the way. You can send him in a stealth a

    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      Times change. Technology changes. We all love the Sopwith Camel and the P-51, but you wouldn't use either one in a modern war.

      Depends on what you call a modern war.

      Here's two articles written almost a year apart:
      http://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2012/04/16/simple-purchase-of-light-plane-becomes-big-problem-for-air-force/ [forbes.com]
      http://killerapps.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/02/27/us_air_force_buys_20_propellor_driven_attack_planes [foreignpolicy.com]

      Small, propeller-driven planes are often better-suited to counter-insurgency operations than the fighter jets on which U.S. forces tend to rely, because they can fly lower and slower to get a more precise idea of what enemy ground forces are doing. Since the Taliban has no air force of its own and few surface-to-air missiles, the danger to pilots from enemy fire is modest. The U.S. Air Force seriously considered buying such planes for use by its own pilots in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      The U.S. efforts to purchase a prop-driven plane go back about five years. Some in the Air Force wanted to buy a fleet of such planes to provide close air support to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They would have been better suited to such work than the service's aging fleet of fast jets, which were designed to kill Soviet MiGs not strafe insurgents and which cost a fortune for every hour they fly.

      Our modern military shouldn't be limited to "modern" wars.

    • by sootman (158191)

      > They can have performance envelopes that
      > won't allow a human inside.

      And that will be the death (pardon the term) of manned air combat -- once the enemy has so many great drones that the U.S. pilot survival rate nears 0%, we'll quit sending people out in planes to fight.

  • In a 2008 speech, General Norton Schwarz, who served as AF chief from 2008 to 2012, did not mince words when he said that this systemic obsession with all-things manned has turned the Air Force's swelling drone ranks into a 'leper colony.' That doesn't sound like deep rooted stigma to me, that sounds like a man with a plan.
    • That doesn't sound like deep rooted stigma to me, that sounds like a man with a plan.

      So, should people in Panama start to worry?

  • There are plenty of other reasons why you wouldn't want to tele-operate combat vehicles ranging from ethical to technical. Setting the ethical aside, one of the most glaring reasons why you would want to retain manned vehicles would be the mitigation of the risk that someone would jack or jam your drones.
    • by Sir_Sri (199544)

      Pretty much.

      For the wars of the day drones are great tech, since the other side has basically no anti aircraft assets of any sort. But not every war is going to be against a country that was bombed for a decade and had no air defences, or against a bunch of light infantry insurgents fighting from tunnels in a country with no appreciable air force for 30 years.

      The entire challenge of military planning is figuring out what assets you need for the types of wars you'll end up in. And that's not trivial since

  • by Bookwyrm (3535) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @06:45PM (#44231735)

    Think it was John Brunner's "The Shockwave Runner", which had the phrase: "There are two kinds of fools -- one who says this is old and therefore good, and the other which says this is new and therefore better."

  • Nevermind that the AF's active remotely-piloted combat aircraft outnumber its active manned bomber inventory by about 2-to-1.

    I can kind of understand only counting active aircraft, by why are you comparing combat aircraft to bombers? Why not, you know, compare remotely-piloted combat aircraft to manned combat aircraft.

    Also... they way they label "militant combatants" now a days would probably get my $60 toy with a camera on it classified as combat aircraft. Comparing the capabilities of the B-2 to my quadcopter is laughable.

    Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

    And all that doesn't do a damned thing to country the thrust of the m

    • by bpkiwi (1190575)
      Because drones at the moment are much closer to the bomber role than the fighter role. They are armed with air to ground ordinance, they are turbo-prop driven, and operate only in uncontested airspace.

      The current generation of drones would be mostly ineffective in a battle against an enemy with an air force of their own. Even a 3rd generation fighter aircraft could take out modern drones without trying very hard, and I believe they can't presently arm drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper with air to air missil
      • Yes the manned planes are currently superior, but when they have air to air capability, how many of them can your plane handle? 10? 20? How about 100? The T34 was inferior to the best German tanks, but it was good enough (and cheap enough) and there were shitloads of them......
      • Actually some drones have had Stinger air to air missiles. However Stingers are not particularly effective at downing enemy fighter aircraft.

        To use full blown air to air missiles the drone would require more payload and a radar or IRST sensor. Which would put drone costs way up. Also typically a lot of the initial kinetic energy during launch is provided by the airplane flying at Mach speeds. That is why this isn't being done in drones at the moment.

    • Well all current combat drones are strike aircraft. There are no air-to-air specialist drones yet.

  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @06:52PM (#44231809) Homepage

    Both the USAF and the U.S. Army field Predators. The Army has them driven by sergeants, and has autoland installed. The USAF has them driven by officer pilots, and refuses to have autoland installed on their birds. [dodbuzz.com]

    USAF drone crash rates are much higher than Army crash rates.

    • I always thought it was interesting that (AFAIK) the air force and navy will only let officers be pilots, but in the army non-coms can pilot helicopters. Seems like they've carried that over to drones too. Personally I call the person who drives a chauffeur. Nothing wrong with the work, but it's not usually considered a very skilled position.

      P.S. Are drones a way around the idiotic restriction on the army's use of fixed wing aircraft?

      • Non coms can't fly helicopters, warrant officers can
        To be a warrant you first have to go to college, get accepted to the warrant officer school, pass it and then apply for flight school

      • There were exceptions but they were few and usually in segregated regiments but keeping the pilots as officers let the army keep the riff raff and blacks out of command roles. The rather crappy job that the airforce did in Vietnam doing close air support lead the army to push back for their own air capacity and sargents are easier to come by than officers. I think desperate need won out over some sort of snobbery about how high class someone has to be to be a pilot.

      • Are drones a way around the idiotic restriction on the army's use of fixed wing aircraft?

        For now. But the USAF is already limiting the characteristics of the drones the Army can use. I would not be surprised if eventually the US Army was restricted to using itsy bitsy drones like the RQ-11 Raven.

  • What are they going to do when the ENEMY's planes are all drones? Note that an enemy with a big pile of drones can, just like we do now, send them out with relative impunity without worry about casualties in the air. Right now we're fighting against low-tech forces so we've gotten spoiled. Low-tech forces may not always be the enemy.
    • by tempest69 (572798)
      We make fighter drones.. with frikkin laser beams attached to their heads.
    • an enemy with a big pile of drones can, just like we do now, send them out with relative impunity without worry about casualties in the air

      All the more reason not to send Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel against them, nostalgia notwithstanding.

  • A simple way to settle the debate is to have our unmanned forces attack our manned forces and see who wins. I'm putting $100 on unmanned, and I'll give you 2:1 odds.

  • No disrespect to C10 pilots, but aren't fighter\bomber pilots the top of their class? I'm not a USAF vet, but I would think most fighter pilots scored higher than other pilots at flight school.

    Not to say that makes them better leaders...

    • I would think most fighter pilots scored higher than other pilots at flight school

      True, but they bias the results by only testing against human pilots.

  • It's as if drones pose such a threat to traditional means of aerial warfare that the flying service's historically kneejerk resistance to anything too closely aligned with sweeping technological change finds it bristling today at prospective gamechangers of the unmanned sort.

    That sentence is an absolute mess.

  • This article is emotionally charged and poorly written with no real figures to back up your claims.. "In other words, 'the ratio of wing-command opportunities for RPA pilots versus those who fly manned combat aircraft is a staggering 1-to-26.'" No it's not. To tell us the ratio of opportunities for pilots you also need to take into account how many pilots there are in each field. If there are 26 times more fighter pilots than drone pilots then opportunities for a given pilot are roughly the same. The numb
  • I spent four years in USAF as an officer in the late 1970s.

    It stands to reason that you'd expect your general officers in the military to have combat experience. As USAF has historically been a manned aircraft oriented organization, it stands to reason that fighter pilots would be the people who eventually become USAF generals. After all, the first mission of the military is to fight our wars and you want people who have first-hand knowledge as your leaders.

    USAF is very adverse to losing fighter aircraft because they are trying to protect pilots. It only stands to reason. That's also why un-manned aircraft are so much less expensive. I believe there is a need for both manned and un-manned aircraft. Wherever you can, un-manned aircraft are preferable because they are so much less costly, but just as there is a case to be made for manned space travel, so there are times when you want humans flying combat missions.

    But beyond all this, you still have the human issues of organization. It is the military's way that *ALL* officers are in training to become generals, and they only keep a small percentage of them around long enough to reach 20 years. In USAF, you go before the major's board at the 12 year mark. If you are passed over for major twice, you have to either leave USAF or accept demotion to the enlisted ranks, to finish out your 20 years and retire as a captain. This gets rid of well over half your officer staff. There aren't a lot of guys willing to take a demotion to enlisted for 6 years so they can stick around for a captain's retirement pension.

    I don't know if drone operators are officers or enlisted. Either way, can you call a drone operator a combat experienced person you want to eventually become general? USAF has a problem here.
    • by DG (989)

      That "up or out" policy has always struck me as being bizarre.

      Sure, not everybody has the chops to go on to be a senior officer. Sometimes, a guy is going to top out at Captain. But he could be a very *good* (or at least acceptable) Captain, and there's no shortage of jobs that profit from having a senior Captain in that slot. Why get rid of those guys?

  • the flying service's historically kneejerk resistance to anything too closely aligned with sweeping technological change

    Wait, what? What planet does he live on? Historically the USAF has been quite the opposite - chasing sweeping technological change whether it made sense or the technology was truly ready for the prime time. You want kneejerk resistance, you want the Navy, especially my fellow bubbleheads in the submarine service.

    This isn't about technology, it's about social change - and that ha

  • 'Weaponized Keynesianism' I've heard it called. About the only way you can get the top to give anything to the bottom is to scare them enough. Eisenhower wrote about it in his memoirs. The whole 'Military Industrial Complex'. Apart from that we run around the world ensuring corporations have safe, cheap labor (there's a general who wrote a book about being a Mob Enforcer for Fruit Companies).

    Anyway, point is, automating our Military seems pointless. If we take away the pork all that's left is a particul
  • by PPH (736903)

    Well OK, that's Navy. But still; how will the image of the macho fighter pilot ever live up to that of Tom Cruise? Well maybe Tom Cruise from Tropic Thunder.

  • That is a very obtusely worded summary.
  • I'm used to seeing a slender article in the middle of a page flanked by white space where ads/junk are being blocked by my HOSTS file.

    The link for 'leper colony' : http://www.airforcetimes.com/article/20080929/NEWS/809290335/Hundreds-of-Reaper-Predator-pilots-needed [airforcetimes.com]
    has everything but an article, just the header "Hundreds of Reaper, Predator pilots needed"

    Checking without a HOSTS file as I did want to read it: I'm shown:
    The "Want to read more?" and subscriptions below, the "article" is part of the subscripti

  • Soon time for a straight up dog fight between the best fly boys and drone fighters.

    Of course, the USAF is blimpish enough to accuse the drones of cheating by pulling too many Gs.

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