When is a fighter pilot not a pilot?

800px-Northrop_Grumman_X-47B_UCAS_(Unmanned_Combat_Air_System)_(210476231)When he is flying a robot aircraft. Or at least that’s what the U.S. Air Force seems to think. Predators, Global Hawks and other unmanned aircraft are doing the lion’s share of the donkey work in Iraq and Afghanistan. The dull but vital task of protecting soldiers on the ground with eyes in the sky has been delegated to quiet little airplanes with unwinking cameras. But the men and women who fly those airplanes from air-conditioned consoles in Nevada? They are the Rodney Dangerfields of the combat pilot community.

Greg Jaffe’s Washington Post article does a great job of exposing the tensions between the pilots in the cockpit, and the pilots (and they are called pilots) who never leave the ground. Jaffe recounts how an F-16 pilot received a Distinguished Flying Cross for dropping a laser-guided bomb on an Al Qaeda leader in Iraq in 2006, though there was little danger that the lightly armed insurgents could shoot him down. But Predator pilots whose well-aimed Hellfire missiles saved trapped American troops from being overrun by the Taliban in 2002? No medals for them.

This sounds like 21st Century high-tech meets silk-scarf, boom-and-zoom fighter pilots. Or high school geeks versus jocks. But really, it’s a tale from 1876, otherwise known as Custer’s Last Stand. Manned combat aircraft are on their way out. The F-22 and F-35, which are budgetary Pacmen devouring Air Force funds, will probably be the last manned fighter aircraft that the United States will purchase. The next generation of combat aircraft, like the X47B,  will be controlled from the ground. No pesky meatbags in the cockpit requiring lots of gear to breath at 30,000 feet. No risky rescues to retrieve an ejected pilot. No dejected pilots paraded before a camera while their captors threaten to charge them with war crimes.

Change is coming. It’s not a coincidence that Norton Schwartz, the new Air Force chief and brainy Jewish-American general (about as common in the U.S. military as Saharan snowstorms), is not a fighter jock. He’s a cargo pilot with an extensive background in special operations missions. Don’t envy him his job. He has to transform an Air Force whose mindset is still thousand-plane raids battling the Luftwaffe over Berlin. But the U.S. Air Force hasn’t engaged in a serious dogfight since Hanoi 1972, and instead of big bomber raids, air power today is more like a cargo run, with aircraft circling the battlefield waiting to drop a laser-guided bomb.

Call me old-fashioned enough to wonder whether unmanned aircraft – even if controlled by humans on the ground – will lack something that only a man in the cockpit can provide. But call me practical enough to realize that reconnaissance, surveillance, hovering over the battlefield in a flying bomb truck, all of these tasks can be performed fairly efficiently by a remote-controlled airplane.

And what of the warrior virtues? How do we assess the concept of valor when warriors are wielding a joystick 3,000 miles from the battlefield? Is it bravery that we should recognize, or just success, even if it’s done by remote control?

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4 Responses to When is a fighter pilot not a pilot?

  1. stanblack says:

    Unmanned aircraft is a life and money saver. The only challenge is how this changes the dynamics of modern warfare. What is the impact of war and bloodletting on an enemy when there is no way possible for harm to come to the aggressor?

    • Michael Peck says:

      That’s an excellent question. I suspect that unmanned aircraft and ground vehicles won’t affect the fundamental nature of war and peace. If the U.S. decides to attack Iran with UAVs, that decision will be based on political calculation; the fact that we can strike Iran without risking pilots probably won’t be the key factor. As far as Iran is concerned, we attacked and they’ll retaliate; that we used robots instead of live pilots won’t make much difference. Humans have been perfecting war machines for thousands of years. I don’t think better technology has made us more or less likely to resort to war.

  2. libtree09 says:

    Here’s an idea…let dump the F-35…a one trillion dollar fubar and go straight to a cheaper pilot free plane?

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