Saturday, October 15, 2011

Can drones replace fighters? Should they?

The trouble with drones is also their main strength.  They are remote control robots.  -Expendable and obedient.

If Gaddafi had drones they would have bombed civilians as ordered.  Libyan pilots famously defected to Malta when they were ordered to fire on their own citizens.

The Soviet Union may still exist today if it had a drone air force.  At the climax of the 1991 coup, when the Red Army and the KGB usurped the Communist Party's Premier, they ordered the Air Force to bomb Moscow.*  They refused.  The USSR dissolved shortly after. 

Drones would have bombed Moscow.   They make no moral distinction between targets.  A Human pilot can rebel against insane orders, even if the orders are perfectly legitimate.  Drones can't even distinguish between legitimate or illegitimate orders let alone make moral judgements on them.

Last week it was reported that a stubborn virus had infected the ground control station at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.  No matter what they do they havn't been able to wipe it off.  The report suggests that it's a simple keylogger virus that records keystrokes.  It could have conceivably been much worse however.

The Stuxnet virus that attacked the Iranian nuclear weapons program actually took control of centrifuges that were being used to refine weapons grade Uranium.  The ingenious virus subverted the display screens of the centrifuges so that the operators had no idea what was happening.  The virus then set the centrifuges to destroy themselves by spinning out of control.

Iran coincidentally has its own drone program.  Like the rogue centrifuges, a drone will simply do whatever it's commanded, be it virus or human, friend or foe. 

There are other limitations too.  Drones are primarily suited to asymmetrical warfare.  Insurgents and Jihadis will not have surface to air missiles or viruses of their own as of yet.  They can't jam the signal to the drone with noise or knock out the signal source either.    An advanced hostile state may have these capabilities.


Some suggest that drones could be a viable alternative to the F-35.  This is not a serious suggestion.  It would be like suggesting that a torpedo, a sophisticated remote controlled drone-like submarine, could replace a ship. No.

This is why a drone fleet will always have a support role that augments real fighter jets with real on-board pilots.  Drones are merely tools and cannot replace fighter jets or bombers as the mainstay of a serious Air Force.  Anyone who thinks this simply hasn't thought it through or is making this suggestion for political reasons.

*I'm not able to locate an online reference for this but I saw it on a Frontline documentary about the fall of the USSR years ago.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Un-manned aircraft have a pilot too,even though they are thousands of miles from the action scene. They are as responsible as the man who sits in the cockpit of conventional aircraft.
Drones are pre-programmed and simply follow those instructions embedded in their memory.
Don't get the two confused.

Alex said...

I don't believe that is fully the case. I believe controllers on the ground have limited control over even the most autonomous drones. I can't believe even the most sophisticated drone will not need permission to engage. That would completely irresponsible.
UAVs and drones are synonymous now. I'm sure you could make some distinction between which is which based on how much piloting and shooting is done locally or remotely. I doubt Iran's centrifuges were autonomous at all, yet still automated enough to be controlled and destroyed.

Anonymous said...

Bro, you have no idea how drones work. As a rsult the stuff you say is silly. Get informed before you have an opinion. Drones cannot replace the F35.

Drones are not robots. They are pilotless aircraft that only fire air to ground missiles. A human decides when to fire. Drones would not have bombed Moscow. ROFLMAO

Alex said...

Educate me smarty pants. There were people in major newspapers suggesting they could and I was rebuffing them.

Robot: A robot is a mechanical or virtual intelligent agent which can perform tasks on its own, or with guidance.

Drone: a remote control mechanism, as a radio-controlled airplane or boat.

I sometimes use simpler terms to make sure everyone understands. Being technical impresses some people but I don't find any art in it. Communicating clearly to the maximum number of people is the greater accomplishment.

Read my post again please. The brass ordered the air men to bomb the protestors and they refused. Drones won't refuse. That's the point.

Alex said...

BTW computers in the F-35 fly the machine more than the pilot does. The pilot commands the computers flying the Jet in the traditional way to keep it simple.

I like the fact that the Pilot has some skin in the game and a mind.

Dollops said...

Cut the quibbling! This is a serious issue. So far, pilotless aircraft or drones have been used as assassins by our side but how long will it be before we hear about a strike by the bad guys? Further, how adaptable is this technology to WMD's? And if no one brags about their guilt in a tragic strike how will we know who to retaliate against?

Anonymous said...

Alex, normally you are on the mark, but as an experienced user of the UAV/RPV world in real-world operations in Operation Enduring Freedom, Op Sea Dragon, and others in the Middle East, I can tell you categorically you are out of your depth. UAVs, RPVs, (all Human Controlled) are capable of far more than you will ever glean from open sources. " people in major newspapers " don't know a fig about the reality.

My advice, just be glad that these systems are working for 'our' side. There are already a few USAF "Fighter Squadrons" operating (flying) UAVs to incredible effect. There will be more of them and less manned platforms in the future. You can count on it. Thank God for American ingenuity, and the capitalist free market that made these systems possible.

Alex said...

OK I'm out my depth, but I can swim! I'll defer to your expert authority and assume you are the real thing.

You say that UAV's and RPV's are "capable of far more than you will ever glean." That doesn't really make me any happier. Sure I'm sure you would never commit an atrocity but you can be much more easily replaced by some one who would when you are safe in your base. There are countries out there with UAVs who may actually issue orders to kill civilians. The capabilities of the drones are irrelevant if they are directed to do evil. That is one point.

I know UAV's are going to spread in use and ability but there are some serious things to consider. I know you could fill the sky with these things and they will be effective even by sheer numbers.

Forget capability. More capable means more dangerous. Let's say they are even more capable than a piloted aircraft could ever be. They could pull higher G turns for example. Heck they could drop faster than a bullet and change direction on a dime if you designed it to. That doesn't really change the fact that they can be put to evil uses that no Pilot would ever commit. -And that is from a legitimate source. Read the Wired article I linked for Stuxnet. Its fasinating and frieghtening.

I'm not saying don't use them. I'm glad these things are on our side. Just remember these things have no real side and hostile powers are desperate to catch up. I'm really glad you are so confident and I believe you. History is littered with overconfident generals and politicians.

I live and work in technology myself and if there is one thing I've learned its not to trust anything. I also get the feeling that you are more of a user than a designer. Let me tell you my freind; Things are not always as they seem to the user. Ask the operators at Iran's nuclear facility.

Thanks for your excellent feedback.

Alex said...

Thank you as well Dollops. Nobody wants to deal with the idea that we are entering an era of killer robots and what that means.

Anonymous said...

The pilots operating the UAVs are the very same ones that were operating F-16s, F-18s, etc. before. You don't change your ethics or morality just because you aren't in the vehicle. For those that don't understand it, there is an an incredibly long authorization chain that manifests itself in "Rules of Engagement" (ROE) for every (and I mean every) circumstance. ROE are approved at the political level, not just the military level, the ROE development includes operational experts, intelligence experts, lawyers, and politicos, I know, I was part of the ROE drafting board for various 'things.'

The various conventions, Geneva , Hague, and others, are all abided by as are the Laws of Armed Conflict that are gleaned from other documents such as the San Remo manual for war at sea.

To quote the VPOTUS all of this is a "Big effing Deal" and far more complex than is possible to be known by those who speak for the Vox Populi.

Either manned or unmanned, there aren't just a bunch of sky jockeys blasting around annihilating anything or anyone they like. Each target is carefully selected, and authorized at the HIGHEST levels. Nor is the UAV/RPV issue one of 'SKYNET" with a bunch of neural network robots on a killing spree. The "Real Deal" is not like the movies. I've seen a lot of movies, and I haven't seen one yet that portrays the reality of the restraint and real boring work that is actually carried out in real warfare.

And yes - UAVs will replace most manned platforms, pilots are already 'optional' in some Blackhawk Helos, and the K-MAX heavy lift helo and not fitted in all the UAVs (and there are a lot of them). They will be optional in the next Gen of fighter aircraft, as they will be in tanks and other vehicles, in the air, on the ground, on and under the sea, and yes - in space [Boeing X-37B] (Check with DARPA).

UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too "dull, dirty, or dangerous" for a manned platform. UAVs are capable of BOLD action as they do not expose the operator to the same risks, as a result they provide long duration (virtually unlimited because a UAV dosen't need to pee), stealthy, flexible, accurate, deadly response when needed, and can be withdrawn when appropriate.

This IS the new way. Those that fail to embrace this change within military circles will fall far behind and never catch up. Gen-5 fighter aircraft like the F-35A/B/C are the last of the manned fighters. Mark it down, it will come true, and it should. Good people are too valuable to waste.

Alex said...

Very Good. I'm glad to hear our side has all these rules as I suspected. I am very comfortable with our people and military.

Can you say the same for Iran?

I'm sure you are absolutely and utterly confident in what you do. I'm sure you've thought of nuclear first strikes against us Neutron bombs, and viruses just as sophisticated or worse than Stuxnet.

Can you say the same for middle powers like Iran or North Korea? What if a 3rd party could direct those drones against us to instigate a war or a terrorist attack?

I'm a natural skeptic, but I will take your word that you believe everything you've said.

You are certain that war in the future will be an entirely remote affair. Maybe you are right, but I prefer pilot optional aircraft at the very least. I simply do not trust outsourcing our final line of defense to automated systems completely, no matter how good and sure their controllers are. We are asking for trouble if we don't imagine the possibility these machines can be turned on us. -not by skynet but by an enemy.

Alex said...

I don't suppose that anyone in this discussion noticed that Iran captured a secret US drone undamaged? Proves my case doesn't it?

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