Will the Emergence of Drones Mean the End of Crewed Aircraft?

All good things come to an end.
Christopher McFadden
The photo credit line may appear like thisAlexLMX/ iStock

Uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, have proved to be something of a revolution in many aspects of our modern world. Among the most dramatic, in the field of combat.

The ability to project power at a distance without risking a human's life is an incredibly technological feat. It could be so revolutionary, in fact (if some experts are to be believed), that it could put an end to more than a century of aerial dominance in warfare.

But, is this a realistic prediction for the future of war? Let's find out. 

But first, let's take a look at some disruptive war technologies of the past. 

What are some examples of disruptive war technologies? 

The term "disruptive technology" is pretty overused today, but there are some genuine examples from the past that truly do fit the bill. One area where this is most apparent is military technology. 

This should not come as much of a surprise, as much like the evolution of predator and prey in the animal world, a similar mechanism (albeit completely synthetic) has been at play when it comes to war. 

From the early days of weapons and armor, the need to provide better protection and then find ways to penetrate or defeat it has pushed war technology to exceptional levels of sophistication today. But this process is usually a long-drawn-out one taking decades, even centuries to occur.

However, just like in nature there are some technological "evolutionary jumps" that truly change the face of war.

Let's take a look at some of the most notable examples from history. Humor us here for a moment, the reason for this little sidetrack will become clear later on. 

1. Iron changed war forever

disruptive war weapons iron
Source: Neil R/Flickr

Iron was first smelted and used as a metal sometime around the 2nd Millenium BC. We cannot be entirely sure how the first iron users came to the realization of the utility of the metal, but it would change the world as our ancestors knew it forever. 

The first iron implements we know of originated from parts of Anatolia in Turkey, Western Africa, and southwestern Asia, and it took roughly 500 years for the technology to finally reach Europe. Some parts of the world would never develop the use of iron until even later. 

Stronger than its forerunners, copper, and bronze, iron would quickly find uses on the battlefield. While wrought iron is not that much better than bronze, its ore(s) are much more abundant. 

Bronze was relatively rare in the past as it required the use of tin, which is relatively rare - even today. This meant bronze was expensive to make, and even more expensive to equip oneself with.

This often meant that bronze was the preserve of the rich and famous throughout much of the bronze age. One region of the ancient world that had a rich supply of iron was central Anatolia in Turkey. The trade in this valuable commodity fueled the rise and expansion of the great Bronze Age kingdoms such as the Egyptians, Hittites, Babylonians, Minoans, and Myceneans.

The bronze age, however, came to a crashing halt in a matter of decades sometime around the 1170s BC, when a perfect storm of climate change and associated drought and famine, and invasion by a roving band of raiders enigmatically called "The Sea People's". 

It is unclear whether they were a single people or a loose alliance of them, but their arrival is marked by the largescale sacking of major cities around the Eastern Meditteranean and causing the fall of the Hittite Empire.

It also severely weakened the Assyrian Empire and the New Kingdom of Egypt. Whether or not these "Sea People" were also armed with iron is hotly debated, but an iron would surpass bronze as the metal of choice for weapons for the next few millennia. 

Whatever the origin and role of the Sea People, it seems that the combination of events effectively decimated the world's most powerful empires of the day.

2. Shock cavalry would dominate the battlefield for centuries

revolutionary weapons cavalry
Source: Tim Sheerman-Chase/Flickr

Leaping forward a few millennia, one of the nest biggest leaps in military technology was the development of heavy or shock cavalry. While other technologies also significantly changed the face of war throughout the classical and early middle ages, few had the same impact (pun intended) as this one.

The culmination in the development of other technologies like the war saddle, the stirrup, the curb bit, iron horseshoes, and sophisticated plate armor, were all finally put together into one deadly package in its most iconic form in the 12th century Asia and Europe. 

Shock cavalry was used in battle to deliver a sudden and devastating battlefield charge designed to put the literal fear of god into any opposing forces in the cavalry's way. 

They have also used a tactical reserve for many armies of the period. 

The development of these mounted units, perhaps first used to such devastating effect by the Mongols, would dominate the battlefields of the Middle Ages as well as contribute to the development, in part, of Feudalism. This period is also characterized by the rise in use and development of castles and other large stone fortifications too.

Shock cavalry would dominate the battlefields of the period until, that is, the rise of the longbow and pike.

3. The advent of gunpowder is near without parallel

distruptive tech gunpowder
Source: Rockin'Rita/Flickr

The impact, so to speak, of the advent of gunpowder, is one of the greatest of any technological development for war. The first explosive developed by humans, it is arguably considered one of the greatest inventions of all time.

First recorded by the Tang Dynasty in 9th-century China, this technology would literally and figurately take the world by storm. When it was eventually introduced into Europe sometime in the 13th century, the face of war would effectively change overnight. 

Gunpowder would eventually lead to the development of firearms and field guns that would render most military advancements that preceded them obsolete. While it would take a few centuries to really get going, by the 17th century, former keystones of standing armies, like archers or plated armor, had become a thing of the past.

Naval combat would also be revolutionized, eventually leading to the development of mighty "Ships of the Line", which could field canons on multiple decks, ironclads, and the warships of today. Of all technologies ever developed, the use of gunpowder in weapons is certainly one that can truly wear the mantle of "disruptive". 

4. Aircraft and aircraft carriers would prove revolutionary

distruptive tech aircraft
Source: Thank You/Flickr

Flight, namely the invention of aircraft, is another "disruptive technology" that has changed the way nations fight each other. After the Wright Brothers' first flight in 1903, within a few short decades, many armed forces around the world would take advantage of this new, and potentially very powerful, technology. 

One of the first aircraft developed for the military was created by the Wright Brothers themselves, with their 1909 "Wright Military Flyer", and the first dedicated airforce, the British Royal Air Force (RAF), would be founded a few years later. 

Aircraft would have a fairly limited impact on the outcome of the First World War, but their actions would show the world the very real potential for the use of technology in warfare. Not least their utility for naval combat.

In 1918, at around the same time as the foundation of the RAF, the first "true" aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, would have her keel laid down, and Japan would begin working on the Hōshō the following year. 

Soon, many other nations around the world would begin to build their own versions. The scene had been set for aircraft, and aircraft carriers, to prove their worth in battle. 

However, they would need to earn their stripes. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, there was much debate as to whether aircraft could ever supersede the battleship for raw, destructive power. While early aircraft could carry payloads, the size of them, and rate of fire, paled in comparison to the giant guns of battleships. 

However, just before WW2, aircraft designs including dive bombers and torpedo planes had matured, setting the stage for one of the biggest clashes of old versus new. 

Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway would cement aircraft, and aircraft carrier, dominance at sea and on land forever. The development of jet engines would further develop the roles and uses of aircraft, forever securing their importance in combat into the modern day. 

While battleships continue to be used in navies for several decades after the war, they would never hold the same prominence they had once enjoyed. 

The last battleship to be built was HMS Vanguard, and the last time battleships saw action was in 1991 when the USS Missouri was used during the Gulf War. Today, no battleships remain in active service, though there are rumors they could be making a comeback.

5. Nuclear weapons: the pinnacle of war technology to date

nukes have ended war
Source: Burnt Pineapple Productions/Flickr

And finally, on our shortlist of the most important "disruptive military technologies" is nuclear weapons. First used at the Japanese city of Hiroshima on the 6th August 1945, nuclear weapons soon evolved into the most potent weapons of war ever conceived by humans. 

The devastation "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" had on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki literally shook the world. Faced with the Allied willingness to use such potent weapons, Japan would surrender later in 1945. 

Modern nuclear warheads are far more potent than those actually used in WW2 and they are far more numerous. It is estimated that there are somewhere in the order of 13,000 nukes around the world. Most of these are in the hands of the U.S. and Russia, but the U.K., France, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, and allegedly North Korea, all have their fair share. 

If all these weapons were packed into a single package, it would have the destructive power of roughly 15 Krakatoa-sized volcanic eruptions! This power, and the raw numbers of warheads currently in existence, are enough to potentially destroy every city on Earth (there are roughly 10,000 cities currently worldwide). 

Apart from nuclear testing since WW2, nuclear weapons have never been used in battle. However, the impact of these weapons on warfare has been almost all-encompassing.

The potential for completely destroying an opponent's cities and large parts of its infrastructure from afar has, so far, prevented any two major powers from actually going to war. While the concept of "Mutually Assured Destruction" is disputed by some, there can be no doubt that the existence of nukes has seen one of the most peaceful periods in human history (even if it doesn't seem like it). 

By potentially putting an end to a large-scale conflict that was so common throughout our history, it could be argued that nukes have been so "disruptive" that they have prevented the large-scale conflict from breaking out. 

Could drones be the next big disruptive war technology? 

As we've seen, some war technologies have had significant impacts on warfare. And we mean significant jumps, not minor improvements. 

Just like aircraft effectively rendered mighty surface warships, like battleships, obsolete, and now dominate the outcome of conflicts of land, could they, in turn, be stripped of their dominance by drones? 

Elon Musk, among many others, certainly believes so. 

will drones replace jets
Source: pongky.n/iStock

Speaking to Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium 2021., Musk said, “locally autonomous drone warfare is where it’s at, where the future will be.” 

“It’s not that I want the future to be this, that’s just what the future will be. … The fighter jet era has passed. Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones,” he added. 

But is there any truth to this? 

To a certain extent, yes. But it all depends on how you use your aerial assets, crewed or otherwise.

The main benefit of equipment like jet fighters, or any military aircraft really, is that they can attack, return, and be reused. The same is also true of military drones, albeit with generally smaller payloads.

If you just need to get some high explosives onto a high-value target quickly and are not bothered about possible civilian losses, then we already have something for that - cruise missiles.

Technically designed for "rapid strike high attrition attacks" (attacks in which you expect heavy losses), cruise missiles are the ideal tool. They are very fast, incredibly accurate, safe (from the attacker's point of view), and are relatively cheap at about $1.5 million or less apiece).

But these are one shot, one kill weapons. You can't get them back once detonated. They are also completely useless for other missions, like interception or air superiority (obviously). 

For other kinds of missions, like reconnaissance, there is nothing better than a drone.

They can loiter around a target area for many hours, even days, without tiring or getting bored. But, they are not a "cure-all". 

They also have a fairly long, and interesting, history. 

Drones or autonomous vehicles (aerial or otherwise) are nothing new but have yet to replace crewed craft wholesale in many armed forces around the world. In fact, some of the first military drones were developed by the British in 1917.

Called the Aerial Target, the remote controls for the craft were developed by Dr. Archibald Low and first took flight in March of 1917. 

Since then, uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) have increased greatly in sophistication and number. Under former President Barack Obama's administration, for example, military drone attacks rose almost tenfold. 

Modern military drones, like the MQ-9B, are highly capable pieces of kit that can stay aloft for nearly 2 days without needing to refuel. 

The MQ-9B also comes with an impressive suite of sensors that make it almost unrivaled in the skies. As there is no pilot inside, this craft can be slimmed down dramatically when compared to jets that need large amounts of gear to keep the pilot alive midair.

However, and probably most importantly, military drones are able to be deployed on very dangerous missions without risking a human life (for the attacking force, that is). 

drones to replace jets
Source: AlexLMX/iStock

It is also important to note that while many drones are termed "autonomous", this is not necessarily true. There is usually someone, somewhere, controlling the vehicle remotely. This makes them more similar to radio-controlled aircraft, except much larger and much more lethal.

But this is set to change in the not too distant future. Many experts in the field believe that making these craft more or completely autonomous is a strategic necessity in the coming years.

"As we move away from limited conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq to near-peer adversaries with high-end capabilities, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the integrity of that signal. This means that to replace manned fighters, these drones will need to be autonomous, or make decisions on their own, in order to be effective," explains fighter pilot Hasard Lee in an article on the subject. 

But, this is not an easy task. As many "autonomous" vehicle manufacturers are finding out when it comes to city driving. Driving in a city is, for non-human guidance systems, a pretty confusing and chaotic experience.

Apart from the general rules of the road, in places with so many people together in one place, unexpected or novel hazards can, and will, appear at some point.

Unless "trained" to expect relatively rare eventualities, autonomous vehicle systems can easily become overwhelmed or confused where a human could react without question. 

But as complex as city driving is, it pales in comparison to the complexity and dynamism of actual combat. Battlefield conditions can turn on a dime, requiring combatants to react quickly or risk being outmaneuvered or destroyed.

Not only that, but enemy combatants are actively looking for ways to exploit any weaknesses (perceived or otherwise). Autonomous vehicles, like cars, don't usually have to deal with "hostile" road users actively attempting to destroy the car.

Military drones, on the other hand, must be able to take the fight against the enemy, while also surviving defensive actions, both active or passive. 

Imagine, if you will, taking a Tesla car and putting it into some dystopian future like "Mad Max". It is highly unlikely that such a vehicle would survive very long with people painting street lines in random places, shining lasers into its sensors, or, of course, actively shooting at it. While an extreme example, it gives you an idea of what military drone designers need to consider when developing potential autonomous systems for drones. 

It is mainly for this reason that military drones, while specifically designed for combat, are still largely controlled remotely by human beings. Humans have much more sophisticated situational awareness, especially when the drone is piloted by a trained and experienced pilot. 

military drones could be the future
Gremlins drone being recovered mid-air. Source: DARPA

Human beings have also, thus far, proved to be far more competent at coming up with innovative and dynamic solutions to problems that may not have even been thought of before. We are, in short, better at being creative.

This is especially true when the chips are down in a life-and-death situation. For this reason, among others, many believe that human pilots will remain a thing for many years to come.

At least until, if ever, autonomous algorithms (aka artificial intelligence) get anywhere near as competent at thinking "outside the box". 

An amazing statistic is that more drone pilots now exist than ordinary jet and bomber pilots in the United States. This is, in part, due to the recent changes in so-called "asymmetric warfare" against guerilla fighters like the Taliban or Al Queda, but also due to another major pressure on crewed aircraft - cost. 

But more on that in a little bit. 

When will drones replace crewed jets? 

As we have seen, some of the most prominent tech thinkers believe it is only a matter of time before drones completely replace crewed aircraft. But this is not a foregone conclusion. 

Drones currently have many limitations that would need to be overcome first before they could even come close to fully replacing crewed aircraft. We've already touched on a few above, but another interesting issue with drones is that they may actually make conflict more attractive, perhaps unnecessarily so. 

Operating drones from afar, much like in a computer game, is by its very nature disconnected and artificial, in a sense.

This divorces the user, in part, from the usual pressures of war and could enable an operator to more easily suspend their ethical decision-making. At a higher strategic level, the lack of a human pilot can also make airstrikes more appealing, again potentially resulting in removing the ethical component from decisions made by commanders. 

uavs of the future
Source: Exosonic, Inc

It could be argued that this may lead to more unnecessary kinetic warfare engagements as war becomes "cheaper" in the sense of an armed force's expected casualties. An interesting ethical dilemma.

After all, the prevention of friendly or civilian casualties is one of the main purposes of drones. 

Whether or not the downsides (technical or ethical) of drones can be overcome might be, in the long run, an academic anyway. The rise and dominance of drones could be only a matter of time.

Crewed jets are pretty expensive pieces of kit, with some of the most advanced models costing a small fortune per unit. 

Take the F-35, for example. The entire program vastly exceeded its initial budget, running, according to some estimates, well over $400 billion. That is, amazingly, almost the entire gross domestic product of some nations like Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands, to name but a few. 

However, it is important to note that the "Joint Strike Fighter" was originally designed to replace several of the United States' aging air fleets, including the FF-16, A-10 Thunderbolt, A/F-18 Hornet, and McDonell Douglas AV8B jump jet. Taken in the main, the F-22 and F-35 could be considered a pretty good deal in the long run. Though this is, of course, not universally accepted. 

Military drones, on the other hand, are considerably cheaper per unit to buy initially and keep in the air. And the cost of them is only set to get cheaper over time

Take, for example, the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie.

Currently, under development, these stealth-capable unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) are being designed as low-cost attributable aircraft for the future. They will have various versions that will perform a series of missions including air defense suppression, offensive, and defensive counter-air maneuvers, nap-of-the-earth or terrain masking flight, and high-altitude flying.

future uav valkyrie
The XQ-58A Valkyrie. Source: 88 Air Base Public Affairs/Wikimedia Commons

At present, each unit is billed at around $3 million a unit for orders of less than 99 Valkyries, reduced to $2 million for orders of 100 or more. 

While semi-autonomous, the XQ-58A Valkyrie is planned to perform the function of a "loyal wingman", effectively acting as cheap and sacrificial escorts for the far more expensive F-35 and F-22. Each one will be controlled by its parent crewed aircraft to perform tasks like scouting, interception/flying shields for the parent aircraft, and engaging the enemy. 

Such relatively cheap drones could be bought and deployed in very large numbers for a fraction of the cost of a full squadron of the latest stealth-capable fighters. 

This opens the possibility of engaging enemy aircraft en masse in "swarms" with or without direct human control from a parent aircraft. The large-scale deployment of relatively cheap, and very numerous drones in this fashion would, in theory, be able to swamp and overpower even the most sophisticated of modern aircraft.

And it is not just aircraft that could be at risk. Many large surface fleet assets, like aircraft carriers, may well be at risk from swarms of drones

There are also other financial benefits from UAVs that are not always obvious. They can offer significant savings on human pilot salaries and associated costs, use considerably less fuel to fly, are cheaper to make, never need to sleep, or go to the toilet, and don't necessarily need to be rescued when they are shot down. 

Human pilots also tend to need shelter in fortified places to land and park their aircraft, often at fairly short ranges from a combat zone. While UAVs also need this to a certain extent, they can also be flown from and back to bases much closer to "home". 

However, much like anything in life, there are no solutions only compromises. UAVs might be cheaper, and better in some situations, but if their decision-making algorithms cannot be made to think creatively when threatened, they may act like expensive non-player characters NPCs in computer games. 

Obviously, for large swarms of drones, this might be a moot point. 

Also, if drones cannot learn from survived combat experiences, as a human does, countertactics could soon be found to exploit their weaknesses to devastating results. UAVs also run the risk of being "hacked" and controlled by sufficiently sophisticated enemy forces. 

Obviously not ideal. 

To this end, as many countries appear to have concluded, at least for the next few decades, is to have drones and crewed aircraft work together. This "best of both worlds" offers most of the benefits from both manned and unmanned vehicles, while also offering some interesting possibilities by using each others' strengths. 

This is the basis of the aforementioned "loyal wingman" concept and one that is increasingly becoming the basic standard for 6th-generation fighters, like the planned Japanese F-X "Godzilla".

future combat system drones
Europe's "Future Combat Air System" (FCAS) appears to be the immediate future of aerial combat. Source: Airbus

Many other countries, like the United Kingdom and EU-member states, are also developing their next-generation aircraft to work more as part of large Internet-of-Things-like networks with manned and unmanned aerial assets. 

Whether or not this proves to be effective, is yet to be seen, but it is certainly an interesting concept. Ultimately, as aircraft become more and more sophisticated with each future generation, the likely trend is to see more and more drones and less and less manned aircraft. 

Unless the intelligence of drones can accurately replicate the human mind, which some argue is impossible, the future of pilots might well be from the cockpit to the remote control. 

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