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Future Fighters Won't Need Ejection Seats 622

Posted by timothy
from the top-gun-will-just-be-the-uppermost-gun dept.
Dr. Tom writes "The U.S. has deployed more than 11,000 military drones, up from fewer than 200 in 2002. They carry out a wide variety of missions while saving money and American lives. Within a generation they could replace most manned military aircraft, says John Pike, a defense expert at the think tank GlobalSecurity.org. Pike suspects that the F-35 Lightning II, now under development by Lockheed Martin, might be 'the last fighter with an ejector seat, and might get converted into a drone itself.' The weakest link is the pilot. A jet could pull 15 Gs, out-turning any conventional aircraft, except it would kill the pilot. Is it time to stop spending billions on obsolete aircraft?"
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Future Fighters Won't Need Ejection Seats

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  • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:05AM (#43014037)

    Nah, no one could ever do that.

    • by noh8rz10 (2716597) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:08AM (#43014067)
      I would install gps controls so it could never attack anything in the US. Then we'd be safe.
      • by lister king of smeg (2481612) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:15AM (#43014141)

        didn't iran make one of our drones think it was landing at our base when instead it landed on theirs with gps spoofing.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:32AM (#43014391)

          didn't iran make one of our drones think it was landing at our base when instead it landed on theirs with gps spoofing.

          They claimed to have done so, but personally I'm a little suspicious of anything they claim. Don't forget they've also claimed to have developed a stealth fighter jet and provided pictures of a cheap mock-up, and video of a hobby-size RC model craft as "proof".

          • by Grishnakh (216268) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:48AM (#43014615)

            Iran's claim is very suspicious. However, Iran isn't exactly the most technologically-advanced nation out there. This drone stuff only works because all the opponents are decades behind the US technologically, so they have little ability (yet) to block the radio signals needed to keep these aircraft under control. If the US were up against an opponent at the same technological level, such as China, it'd be screwed. Blocking GPS signals is something well beyond the capabilities of some Taliban fighters living in a cave and carrying nothing more advanced than AK47s, however it's well within China's abilities.

            • by ArcadeMan (2766669) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:52AM (#43014669)

              Especially with almost everything being "Made in China".

              • by Grishnakh (216268)

                Exactly.

                Of course, to be fair, not everything is Made in China, such as cutting-edge microprocessors (still made in the USA by Intel), but you don't need absolute cutting-edge tech to deal with drones, and China is more than capable, technologically, of countering them.

            • by jafac (1449) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @05:05PM (#43018289) Homepage

              Iran DOES have some pretty brilliant scientists. GPS blocking is one thing, but GPS forgery - I'm not buying that. That's bullshit. I tend to believe the theory that they got a couple of aircraft around the drone, and herded it using it's close-range collision avoidance system. That's why it landed hard.

      • Depends on how good that hack is. See that skyline? Nooo, that's not New York, that's Tehran, dear AI.

    • by Vlad_the_Inhaler (32958) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:24AM (#43014259) Homepage

      How could this go wrong?

      • A DOS attack stops everything, a decent EMP pulse would probably have the same effect
      • That Chinese unit based in Shanghai manages to comandeer parts of the air force
      • They use Windows and catch an updated version of Stuxnet
      • Either they can take commands in flight or they can not. In one case they can be taken over, in the other they can't react to a changing situation.

      I am not a security expert. There is so much wrong with this idea I can't even start to get my head around the ramifications. April 1 came early this year.

    • by hawguy (1600213) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:27AM (#43014317)

      Nah, no one could ever do that.

      Having a piloted plane doesn't eliminate the risk of hacking. If someone can hack the control system for a drone, they can do the same thing to an F-35. The pilot has little (or no) control if the computer doesn't want him to.

      The F-117 stealth fighter was said to be so aerodynamically unstable that it was unflyable without computer assistance.

      • There's a big difference - even on a computerized plane, all the inputs come from somewhere aboard the plane. You can't log in and tell it to bomb somewhere else. Drones are remotely controlled by design.

        • by hawguy (1600213) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:41AM (#43014519)

          There's a big difference - even on a computerized plane, all the inputs come from somewhere aboard the plane. You can't log in and tell it to bomb somewhere else. Drones are remotely controlled by design.

          Except that the outputs come from the computer, so if you can get your software onto the computer (don't forget that hackers already stole 1 TB of design plans for the F-35 - and that's just the known breach, who knows what else they may have), then you can make the plane fly anywhere you want, regardless of what the pilot wants.

    • by Joce640k (829181) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:32AM (#43014387) Homepage

      " A jet could pull 15 g's, out-turning any conventional aircraft"

      Whys is that an advantage?

      Aren't high-G turns already obsolete (along with 'dogfighting')?

      • by realityimpaired (1668397) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:44AM (#43014569)

        Aren't high-G turns already obsolete (along with 'dogfighting')?

        They're only obsolete because the weapons have evolved to make it so. The pilot can't take a 28g sharp turn to avoid an incoming missile, so chaff and other deterrence systems were developped so that the pilot can take a turn they can survive. I doubt he was suggesting that such systems be abandoned entirely, but making an aircraft that can take a hard turn like that in addition to having ECM/chaff could only improve things. Until laser and other energy weapons that can't be dodged are the norm, it's unlikely that agility will ever become a non-issue in designing a fighter.

        Hollywood *rarely* gets technical issues right, but the speech in Top Gun where they were talking about pilots becoming reliant on missiles in Korea was actually true, and the basic principle should still be true today. Dogfighting specifically doesn't really happen any more, but the basic evasive agility skills that it's based on are still applicable. That's actually the point of the article, as I understand it: the pilot is, by far, the biggest limiting factor on the agility of aircraft today, and if you can remove the pilot you can make something that's faster, accelerates harder, and is more agile. As others point out, they need to figure out a way to make it unhackable for it to be truly reliable, but that isn't an impossible task.

        • by steelfood (895457)

          When all your planes are unmanned, losing one or two isn't nearly as important.

          • by jandrese (485)
            They still cost one hundred million dollars each (referring to F-35s retrofitted with drone controls here), so you can't just throw them away in the face of air defense.
        • by perpenso (1613749)
          FWIW, it was Vietnam where U.S. pilots had become "overdependent" on missiles. Of course it was not their fault, some of their aircraft did not have guns (F-4). It did not help that earlier versions of their missiles were terribly unreliable (sparrow more than sidewinder). Rules of engagement also reduced the effectiveness of missiles. The later improvements in the kill/loss ratio is not merely more dogfight training and more flights equipped with guns (F4-E or external pods for other models), its also due
      • Aren't high-G turns already obsolete (along with 'dogfighting')?

        Why the hell should something that breaks the lock of a terminally closing incoming anti-air missile, thus saving the unit, be consider "obsolete"? That's like saying that dodging a mugger's knife is obsolete these days. Sure, if you want to end up dead...?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by JDG1980 (2438906)

          Why the hell should something that breaks the lock of a terminally closing incoming anti-air missile, thus saving the unit, be consider "obsolete"? That's like saying that dodging a mugger's knife is obsolete these days. Sure, if you want to end up dead...?

          The whole point of drones is that you're not putting your own soldiers at risk, so you don't care if it gets shot down. That only costs money, and the military has as much of that as it wants.

        • by rtaylor (70602) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @12:14PM (#43014989) Homepage

          Why send up one sophisticated aircraft when you could sent up 10,000 really dumb ones.

          Send up a cloud of drones with the expectation that 20% will be sacrificed for defence of the group.

          • It's called a swarm. And swarm logic could be used to dynamically coordinate tasks and targets among the drones as needed. One moment a drone is targeting a civilian only for milliseconds later to pass for a new given task to intercept an incoming missile as the sacrificial lamb. I'm willing to bet that level of technology is much further along than we realize.

      • by smash (1351) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:55AM (#43014715) Homepage Journal

        High G turns are still and relevant even with BVR combat. However, NO JET can sustain 15G (or even 9 G) either now or in the near future. The peak G loadings fighters are capable of bleed airspeed at a massive rate and are only used briefly for evasion or to point the nose in a hurry for weapons delivery. New, high angle off-boresight missiles will make this less of a problem (you can shoot the guy without pointing the nose at him). There are pilots who can do 10 or 12 G anyhow (see red bull air race).

    • . . . . because, of course, nobody will ever be as smart and stupid at the same time as Gaius Baltar.
  • by Shivetya (243324) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:09AM (#43014077) Homepage Journal

    for manned aircraft but realistically we don't need fighter or bomber pilots once we can prove that they can not be taken over by an enemy and that they could operate autonomously when conditions warrant

    its no different than convincing the Navy that carriers will be if not already obsolete for most missions. Changing how people feel about something takes longer to catch up to technology than it takes for technology to advance.

    • by Cassini2 (956052) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:16AM (#43014159)

      If the current drone craze takes off, the Navy aircraft carrier will be far from obsolete. Those drones need somewhere to refuel and reload, and an aircraft carrier is the easiest thing to keep in theatre.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by hawguy (1600213)

        If the current drone craze takes off, the Navy aircraft carrier will be far from obsolete. Those drones need somewhere to refuel and reload, and an aircraft carrier is the easiest thing to keep in theatre.

        When you have a 20 foot long drone that can withstand 20G's of stopping force and 20G's of takeoff force from a relatively short magnetic rail gun, you don't necessarily need a 1000 foot 100,000 ton aircraft carrier to service it.

    • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:18AM (#43014181)

      once we can prove that they can not be taken over by an enemy

      Any system can be hacked. Having humans directly in the loop is the basic Wargames lesson.

      they could operate autonomously when conditions warrant

      And that is exactly what these drones should NEVER be allowed to do. And that's the basic Terminator lesson.

    • by pr0t0 (216378)

      I can see a time when the operational need for a carrier is diminished if not made obsolete. The psychological need for a carrier may be harder to replace. Parking a carrier 200 miles off the coast of a nation that is acting in an unwanted manner gives that nation pause. It's a form of deterrence that says, "Hey bud...we're watching you.", and can sometimes prevent an escalation of hostility.

      Also, it can sometimes increase the level hostility, so...there you go.

  • by ReallyEvilCanine (991886) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:09AM (#43014079) Homepage
    Install ejection seats on the remote pilots' chairs would certainly serve as a strong deterrent to unsafe manoeuvres as well as providing a means for a broad range of disciplinary actions.
  • No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jjeffries (17675) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:15AM (#43014137)

    People in the military need to be injured or killed in war, to remind everyone that it is fucking terrible and that no one should *want* to do it.

    • This reminded me of the Star Trek episode (original Shatner-ized series) where the aliens encountered "evolved" to pushbutton war. Basically they just declared you "hit" like Battleship and you were supposed to exterminate yourself. It led to a war that never ended.

    • by X0563511 (793323)

      Because the ones making the decision to go to war so often think about the poor folks getting killed...

    • Sadly, the ones that could NOT want it (and also have the power to not DO it) are not the same that get shot at. Trust me, if that was only remotely the case, wars would be pretty short and our self absorbed leaders would think twice before starting a never ending war like the one we're in right now.

    • by fermion (181285)
      Unfortunately this does not work because the people who make us go to war aren't the ones whose families are going to fight. Look at the Bush II. Did he have any experience in the war that killed thousands of americans, many thousands of children, and injured tens of thousand more? No, he was able to pull a duty in that national guard, one he did not even complete according to government documents.

      And the one's that did fight are now generals and are worried about budgets and pensions, and whose board

    • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

      by JDG1980 (2438906) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:49AM (#43014637)

      People in the military need to be injured or killed in war, to remind everyone that it is fucking terrible and that no one should *want* to do it.

      Automated drones are just the culmination of a decades-long trend in the U.S. towards enabling warfare by insulating the bulk of the population from its costs. During WWI and WWII, a universal draft meant that virtually every able-bodied man had to go to war, and those on the home front shared the sacrifice through work requirements, rationing, and higher taxes. In Vietnam, though, affluent Americans were able to avoid any impact of the war on their own families thanks to the college exemption from the draft. This meant that only the working classes bore the brunt of the war. And on the home front, life was far closer to normal than it was during the World Wars – the war was funded through deficit spending, not increased taxes, and there was no rationing. After Vietnam, the draft was ended, so even those Americans who didn't go to college would not be shipped off to the military unless they signed up. The result was that the first Iraq War met with very little opposition, since no one except volunteer soldiers was at any risk at all, and even then casualties were minimal. The longer campaigns in Afghanistan and in the second Iraq War led to additional backlash against the casualties among volunteer soldiers, hence the move to drones. Basically, the American political elites figured out that if Americans don't have to see American soldiers die in war, then they can do whatever they want overseas and no one will try to stop them.

  • lag (Score:4, Interesting)

    by pezpunk (205653) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:18AM (#43014179) Homepage

    well, in a dogfight, manned aircraft will easily trump remote-piloted aircraft, even with the maneuvability disadvantage. the reason is lag. i've read there is a 2 second delay between a remote operator's input and action by a drone. even assuming technology progresses and that lag is reduced, there are certain physical laws that can't be broken, and a delay is always going to exist. as any gamer knows, lag kills.

    there is a world of difference between telling a drone to hit a fixed, stationary target versus piloting an aircraft through a dynamic set of circumstances.

    so yeah, if all we ever want to do with our planes is hit-and-runs on stationary targets, then sure, we don't need manned aircraft anymore.

    • Re:lag (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Crash24 (808326) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:28AM (#43014339) Homepage Journal
      You're assuming that the drones will never be autonomous in a situation that requires low latency. While a human pilot may have better ingenuity and unpredictability in a dogfight, he cannot physically react faster than a computer. Connect that computer to the right sensors, and you'll have a system ready to fly an airframe capable of doing turns that will turn any human pilot into red jelly.
  • by ZorroXXX (610877) <<hlovdal> <at> <gmail.com>> on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:21AM (#43014221)

    Is it time to stop spending billions on obsolete aircraft?

    It is time to stop spending billions on military weapons in general; sadly weapon is the world's largest trading goods. If all that money had been spent more wisely the world could have been a much safer and better place.

  • by Opportunist (166417) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:27AM (#43014313)

    Unless you manage to develop an AI intelligent enough to actually pilot that craft without any outside control, you better can that idea. Else the enemy's jet fighters of the future will be armed with huge arrays of radio jamming equipment. If all that's necessary to shoot down your enemy is to wait for him to point his nose down in a maneuver and then ensure he won't change the attitude before terrain altitude matches aircraft altitude all that will accomplish is to make it heaps cheaper to take out your crafts.

    For some odd reason the whole idea reminds me of the German V1s that were "shot down" by English pilots by nudging the wings of those flying bombs with their own, making the former spiral out of control and crash. Why bother wasting ammo if there's way easier, cheaper and also safer ways of getting rid of your enemy? And yes, it was actually safer to perform a pretty dangerous maneuver instead of trying to blow up a bomb stuffed with hundreds of pounds of explosives from a few feet behind it.

  • What good is 15g (Score:4, Interesting)

    by JavaBear (9872) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:50AM (#43014647)

    if you have a 300 ms latency?

  • by pahles (701275) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:58AM (#43014769)
    Maybe it's time to stop spending billions on obsolete wars.
  • Imagine any conventional object up in the sky. A sitting duck for your laser, right? Even mach 10 is pretty much stationary compared to 3e8 m/s.

    But what if that autonomous drone is flying 2 feet off the ground using its inhumanly fast reaction time and 36g turning capability to fly at that altitude--i.e., it's below the horizon until it's right on top of your laser facility.

    Drones could survive battlefield lasers, maybe: piloted jets, not so much.

    --PM

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      Imagine any conventional object up in the sky. A sitting duck for your laser, right? Even mach 10 is pretty much stationary compared to 3e8 m/s.

      But what if that autonomous drone is flying 2 feet off the ground using its inhumanly fast reaction time and 36g turning capability to fly at that altitude--i.e., it's below the horizon until it's right on top of your laser facility.

      Drones could survive battlefield lasers, maybe: piloted jets, not so much.

      --PM

      so what if drones are tomahawk missiles?

  • by JeanCroix (99825) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @12:03PM (#43014827) Journal

    Pike suspects that the F-35 Lightning II, now under development by Lockheed Martin, might be 'the last fighter with an ejector seat...

    ...And I'd put lots of money on his suspicion being incorrect.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @12:10PM (#43014925)

    First to the ones who think this is a problem because 'Dogfighting is obsolete'. Please see the craptastic example of Mr. McNamara on that one - lesson is still relevant.

    Second: My father is a Vietnam era fighter jock, and at 75 is the last living member of his squadron. They are all dying early, frequently from complications arising from their internal organs bouncing off their ribs - where no G suit could help them. Were they pulling 15G? No...they were doing tight 8G turns followed by just enough time for the plane to stabilize before pulling 8G turns in the opposite direction in order to dodge SAMs with an aggregate 16G turn done *just* slow enough to not take the wings off their planes. So long as missiles are shot at manned planes, this 'dogfighting' move will be required for anyone who wants to see their family again.

    So...speaking as someone watching fighter vet's bodies crumble, Hell Yeah! Bring on the UAVs right now!

  • by PseudoCoder (1642383) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @12:10PM (#43014941)

    As a drone guy myself, I love drones. Throughout my career I've designed, built, tested, simulated and built training systems for them. Just love them. I just don't think they'll be a viable air-to-air solution for at least another 25 years. I remember wanting to be a fighter pilot in my high school and college years and reading about it, everyone seemed to emphasize the pilot's situational awareness, and how it makes all the difference in air-to-air combat. This was in the days of the next generation fighters where designers were starting to focus on pilot overload with all the sophisticated systems they were having to manage in addition to flying the plane and shooting down the enemy. The 2-way datalink requirements to support that level of SA in an unmanned fighter are just not there yet, as far as I see the current state of the art. And frankly, I'm not aware of a whole lot of R&D to explore what it's going to take to get a man-in-the-loop unmanned fighter to provide that level of SA to a remote pilot. The links themselves can be pretty fickle. You can't maneuver a UAV too fast or you'll lose the datalink. Predator operators eventually have to learn how to maneuver properly to avoid satlink loss and how to deal with having to wait for the bird to regain its bearings and restore the link. I can't see how to keep a satlink going during air-to-air combat maneuvering with current datalink technology.

    There are clear advantages of getting the pilot out of the cockpit, but the technology and sensor fusion isn't there to make them fully autonomous, which is the only foreseeable way to deal with the lag and bandwidth issue that precludes man-in-the-loop dogfighting today. The life support systems on a fighter plane weigh as much as a Predator and we would pretty much have to replace that weight with sensors, datalink support equipment and necessary redundant systems. And when start talking autonomous then we're going to argue about ethics, so either way, it's not going to happen any time soon. Consider how long it took the FAA to get past the point of having meetings about when they were going to have meetings. So the man-in-the-loop approach is the closest one, in my opinion. I might not be up to speed on newer technologies and research, but I'd say for now, let's do the R&D and deal with the datalink issues and 1) quantify the bandwidth, lag and maneuvering requirements and 2) see how we can satisfy those requirements and what technologies can be evolved to deal with the current limitations.

  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @02:08PM (#43016243) Homepage

    We're going to see semi-autonomous fighter aircraft. The F-35, at $236 million per unit, is just too expensive to deploy in quantity. Autonomous landing and autonomous refueling have already been demonstrated for the F-16. The F-16's targeting system is already partly automatic. It's not far away. Even if manned aircraft are better in combat, there won't be enough of them.

    There will be a remote operator, but their job will be to decide what to kill. They'll turn on Master Arm, select a target, and pull a trigger. Then the computers will take over.

    Another possibility is the autonomous wingman [dtic.mil]. Some planes have pilots, but they're the squadron leaders. The rest are autonomous. This is very likely to happen soon, since DoD has been testing it for about ten years.

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