He’s controversial, he’s wealthy and he’s drawn the ire of the global fighter pilot community – now US Air Force fighter pilots and senior leadership have hit back at bombastic entrepreneur Elon Musk’s contentious statement: “the fighter jet era has passed”.
The current global and regional transition from fourth to fifth-generation fighter aircraft, like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter platforms, is reshaping the role of fighter fleets and the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
Designed to establish and maintain air superiority or air dominance, fighter aircraft have evolved from relatively simple wood and canvas airframes during the First World War to the highly manoeuvrable long-range aircraft that dominated the skies of Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War.
Fifth-generation fighter aircraft in particular represent the pinnacle of modern fighter technology – incorporating all-aspect stealth even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance airframes, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems.
Increasingly advanced, highly capable fourth, 4.5 and fifth-generation fighter aircraft that combine low observable coatings and airframes, increased aerodynamic performance, advanced sensor suites and computational power like the air dominance/air superiority specialised F-15 Eagle series, F-22 Raptor, Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20 are at the pinnacle of the contemporary air power hierarchy.
Traditional fighter aircraft are not the only airborne platform to be influenced by the advent and proliferation of increasingly capable, flexible and adaptable unmanned and autonomous systems.
Recognising this, SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk has sparked controversy during the US Air Force's Air Warfare Symposium when he defiantly stated, "The fighter jet era has passed. Drone warfare is where the future will be. It’s not that I want the future to be – it’s just, this is what the future will be."
Speaking with US Air Force Lieutenant General John Thompson, Musk added, "The Joint Strike Fighter, there should be a competitor ... that’s a controversial subject but I don’t think it’s good to have one provider."
Adding on Twitter later, "The competitor should be a drone fighter plane that’s remote-controlled by a human, but with its maneuvers augmented by autonomy. The F-35 would have no chance against it."
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These comments have drawn fire from the fighter pilot community and the head of the US Air Combat Command, General Mike Holmes, himself a former F-15 Eagle pilot, who responded during the annual McAleese Defense Programs Conference, where he explained, "For a long time, we're still going to need the manned aircraft on the fighter and bomber side.
"We will increasingly be experimenting with other options, [and] we're going to work together."
Gen Holmes added that while he didn't want to get drawn into a war of words with the tech billionaire, "I’m not sure Elon really meant that we should park them all today. I think he meant we should start thinking about what comes next, because something is coming next."
Further expanding on Gen Holmes' response, Douglas Birkey of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies responded to the controversial statement made by Musk, stating: "Despite impressive gains in autonomous technology, manned fighter aircraft will continue to provide the underpinnings of the air superiority mission for decades into the future."
Birkey breaks his reasoning down, by identifying the fundamental differences between highly-trained, specialised and skilled fighter pilots and the still early stage of developments in autonomous aerial vehicles.
"The reason for this is simple: Qualified fighter pilots must be able to master highly aggressive, three-dimensional maneuvering at rates exceeding twice the speed of sound in a highly dynamic battlespace, operate highly sophisticated mission equipment, and face adversaries doing everything in their power to kill them.
"Success means doing it all over the next day. Failure generally equals death or capture," Birkey explains.
Shifting the focus toward autonomous systems, Birkey provides an added comparison, stating: "Contrast that with the present state of artificial intelligence in a far simpler scenario. Musk’s self-driving cars operate in two dimensions, with predictable traffic laws, and understood human behaviour. At the end of 2019, three Tesla cars using their 'autopilot' feature crashed.
"This is not to minimise the accomplishments of self-driving technology. However, it is prudent to point out that the potential of near-term and mid-term autonomy should not be conflated with science fiction-like objectives."
Reinforcing both of these positions, and in response to Musk's comments regarding the future of history's most expensive defence program, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Lieutenant General Eric Fick, Program Executive Officer for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office, remained upbeat about the future of the platform.
"I think the F-35 is a remarkable capability and will continue to be a remarkable capability with the initiatives and the process, procedure and transformation that we see within the program. I’m happy to see what comes next, be it manned or unmanned, but I think the F-35 is going to be here for a long time," Lt Gen Fick added.
Looking to the future
Drawing on examples of the 1950s and the highly successful “century series” of aircraft designed, developed and built throughout the 1950s to avoid the costly overruns of programs like the F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the KC-46 Pegasus programs.
This shift in design, development and production has also seen a shift in the planned capabilities of the proposed platforms.
Shifting from the concepts established in the US Air Force's 'Air Superiority 2030' plan, it is proposed that the future fighter would rapidly prototype technologies with a focus on maturing them for inclusion in an advanced aircraft to be fielded in the early 2030s.
This shift is something highlighted by Will Roper, the US Air Force’s acquisition executive, in an interview with US publication Defense News, where he stated:
"Based on what industry thinks they can do and what my team will tell me, we will need to set a cadence of how fast we think we build a new airplane from scratch. Right now, my estimate is five years. I may be wrong, I’m hoping we can get faster than that – I think that will be insufficient in the long term [to meet future threats] – but five years is so much better than where we are now with normal acquisition."
This focus aims to leverage the existing capacity of US industry and the cutting-edge technology developments to develop a family of networked fighter aircraft – each with varying degrees of commonality, yet designed with optimisation in various and complementary roles, ranging from an unmanned missile and bomb truck, through to a sophisticated sensor node or an airborne laser platform.
Achieving this will require a focus on three key areas, namely: agile software development – a process by which programmers quickly develop, test and implement code, soliciting feedback from users throughout the process; open systems architecture – this is designed to enable a great degree of plug-and-play functionality; and finally, digital engineering – including 3D modelling across the entire program to support lower costs, manufacturing and sustainment programs.
The USAF has a firm eye on the future as the force faces an increasingly fatigued and aged series of air combat platforms that have been pushed to the limit operationally as a result of the operations in the Middle East and will face increasing obsolescence in the face of emerging Chinese and Russian threats.
Gen Holmes added, "I want to work to do the experimentation to answer that question. Will I still want to replace them all with F-35s, or will I start cutting in something else like Elon talked about or what [Air Force acquisition executive] Will Roper and I are discussing?"
The increasingly challenging operating environment emerging on Australia’s doorstep – combined with similar concerns developing among allies, including the US, UK and, more broadly, the European Union – raises questions about the Royal Australian Air Force’s plans to adequately defend Australia’s airspace against increasingly capable threats.
Accordingly, is it time for Australia to be involved with the development and introduction of a highly capable, high-speed, low-observable, air superiority-focused platform to complement the low-end capability of other platforms, future-proofing the capability and enhancing the interoperability of the Royal Australian Air Force and allied air forces?
For Australia, the future operating environment to the nation’s immediate north will necessitate investment in a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F-18 E/F Super Hornets by the mid 2030s.