Tomorrow’s ‘Top Gun’ Might Have Drone Wingman, Use AI

Maverick’s next wingman could be a drone.
In the movies, fighter pilots are depicted as highly trained military aviators with the skills and experience to defeat adversaries in thrilling aerial dogfights.

New technologies, though, are set to redefine what it means to be a “Top Gun,” as algorithms, data and machines take on a bigger role in the cockpit — changes hinted at in “Top Gun: Maverick.”

“A lot of people talk about, you know, the way of the future, possibly taking the pilot out of the aircraft,” said 1st Lt. Walker Gall, an F-35 pilot with the U.S. 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath in England. “That’s definitely not something that any of us look forward to.”

“I’d like to keep my job as long as possible, but I mean, it’s hard to argue with newer and newer technology,” he said. “And if that’s the way of the future, that’s what it is. But I’m just here to enjoy it while I can.”

The future for fighter pilots was on display this week at the Farnborough International Airshow near London, one of the world’s biggest aviation, defense and aerospace expos.

Defense contractors outlined how artificial intelligence and other technologies will be used in the newest warplanes as global military delegations browsed mockups of missiles, drones and fighter jets. At stake are many billions of dollars as countries update military fleets or pump up defense procurement budgets amid rising geopolitical tensions.

The original “Top Gun” movie released in 1986 follows Tom Cruise’s hot-shot Navy pilot, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, through fighter weapons training school. In the sequel, an aging Maverick, now a test pilot, learns the top secret hypersonic plane he’s working on is being canceled so the funding can be used for a pilotless drone program.

It’s a debate that’s been playing out for years in the real world. Drones have been used extensively in the war between Russia and Ukraine and other modern conflicts, raising the question of just how much need there is for human pilots to fly expensive fighter jets and other aircraft — or whether unmanned aerial vehicles could do the job.

At the Farnborough show, experts said the future of air warfare is likely to be manned and unmanned aircraft working together.
One day, fighter pilots will “have a drone aircraft that’s flying as a loyal wingman” under their control, said Jon Norman, a vice president at Raytheon Technologies Corp.’s missile and defense business.

Norman, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot, said he used to complain about drones controlled from the ground that got in his way when he was flying fighter jets.

The latest communications systems let fighters, drones and other aircraft talk to each other, he said.

Technology has already removed the need for a second person to sit in the backseat to work the radar — a role portrayed in the original “Top Gun” movie by the character Goose.

It will continue to play a bigger role in the cockpit, Raytheon executives said. Artificial intelligence will analyze reams of data from sensors placed on planes, drones, the ground or missiles flying through the air to give pilots in the sky and commanders back at headquarters a better sense of the battlefield.

In future battles, AI might allow a pilot to send an armed drone close to an enemy position “and have them just fire at will,” Norman added.

But it’s too soon to write an epitaph for the pilot.

“If we had had this conversation 20 years ago, almost everyone was certain that some (drones) would be serving in a combat aircraft replacement role. That simply hasn’t happened,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director at consultancy AeroDynamic Advisory.

Nowadays, he said, drones mainly support manned military aircraft, which “allows them to get out there with a greater combat aircraft punch.”

There was speculation that the F-35 fighter, which went into operation in 2015, would be the last manned fighter jet, said Gareth Jennings, aviation editor at defense intelligence provider Janes. “But no one says that anymore.”
The F-35, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., is a stealthy fighter part of today’s generation of warplanes. There is a next generation of fighter jets in the concept stages offering even more high-tech advances, including potentially pilotless versions, but they won’t arrive before the next decade at the earliest.

Gall, who recently graduated from fighter pilot training school, said the F-35 is easy to fly and that technology would likely make its successors even easier. But he stressed that the fighter pilot’s role would remain intense.

Even if that role isn’t going away anytime soon, the Pentagon is working on transforming it.

The Air Combat Evolution program, run by the Pentagon’s DARPA research agency, is working on incorporating artificial intelligence into warfighting, including designing a plane that can fly itself in a dogfight.

The program has already carried out a live simulation of air combat, pitting a virtual plane piloted by an AI agent against a human pilot. If all goes well, researchers plan to carry out a live dogfight with AI-enabled planes by 2024.

Experts, though, are skeptical pilots will be eliminated from the cockpit in the near future.

“I don’t think we’ll be at the stage of not needing fighter pilots for a few decades yet,” said Jennings, the aviation editor. “Unmanned technology and the public willingness to accept not having a human in the loop are just not there, and won’t be for at least another 30 years or so.”

Source: Voice of America

Semiconductor Bill Unites US Politicians From Left, Right — in Opposition

A bill to boost semiconductor production in the United States has managed to do nearly the unthinkable — unite the democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and the fiscally conservative right.
The bill making its way through the Senate is a top priority of the Biden administration. It would add about $79 billion to the deficit over 10 years, mostly as a result of new grants and tax breaks that would subsidize the cost that computer chip manufacturers incur when building or expanding chip plants in the United States.
Supporters say that countries around the world are spending billions of dollars to lure chipmakers. The U.S. must do the same or risk losing a secure supply of the semiconductors that power the nation’s automobiles, computers, appliances and some of the military’s most advanced weapons systems.
Sanders and a wide range of conservative lawmakers, think tanks and media outlets have a different take. To them, it’s “corporate welfare.” It’s just the latest example of how spending taxpayer dollars to help the private sector can scramble the usual partisan lines, creating allies on the left and right who agree on little else.
Sanders said he doesn’t hear from people about the need to help the semiconductor industry. Voters talk to him about climate change, gun safety, preserving a woman’s right to an abortion and boosting Social Security benefits, to name just a few.
“Not too many people that I can recall — I have been all over this country — say: ‘Bernie, you go back there and you get the job done, and you give enormously profitable corporations, which pay outrageous compensation packages to their CEOs, billions and billions of dollars in corporate welfare,'” Sanders said.
Sanders voted against the original semiconductor and research bill that passed the Senate last year. He was the only senator who caucuses with the Democrats to oppose the measure, joining with 31 Republicans.
While Sanders would like to see the spending directed elsewhere, several Republican senators just want the spending stopped, period. Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican, said the spending would help fuel inflation that is hurting the poor and middle class.
“The poorer you are, the more you suffer. Even people well-entrenched in the middle class get gouged considerably. Why we would want to take money away from them and give it to the wealthy is beyond my ability to fathom,” Lee said.
Conservative mainstays such as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, the Heritage Foundation and FreedomWorks have also come out against the bill.
“Giving taxpayer money away to rich corporations is not competing with China,” said Walter Lohman, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
The opposition from the far left and the far right means that Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and fellow Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will need help from Republicans to get a bill over the finish line. Support from at least 11 Republican senators will be needed to overcome a filibuster. A final vote on the bill is expected in the coming week.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney is among the likely Republican supporters. Asked about the Sanders’ argument against the bill, Romney said that when other countries subsidize the manufacturing of high technology chips, the U.S. must join the club.
“If you don’t play like they play, then you are not going to be manufacturing high technology chips, and they are essential for our national defense as well as our economy,” Romney said.
The most common reason that lawmakers give for subsidizing the semiconductor industry is the risk to national security from relying on foreign suppliers, particularly after the supply chain problems of the pandemic. Nearly four-fifths of global fabrication capacity is in Asia, according to the Congressional Research Service, broken down by South Korea at 28%, Taiwan at 22%, Japan, 16%, and China, 12%.
“I wish you didn’t have to do this, to be very honest, but France, Germany, Singapore, Japan, all of these other countries are providing incentives for CHIP companies to build there,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“We cannot afford to be in this vulnerable position. We need to be able to protect ourselves,” she said.
The window for passing the bill through the House is narrow if some progressives join with Sanders and if most Republicans line up in opposition based on fiscal concerns. The White House says the bill needs to pass by the end of the month because companies are making decisions now about where to build.
Two key congressional groups, the Problem Solvers caucus and the New Democrat Coalition, have endorsed the measure in recent days,
The Problem Solvers caucus is made up of members from both parties. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, the group’s Republican co-chair, said Intel Corp. wants to build its chip capacity in the United States, but much of that capacity will go to Europe if Congress doesn’t pass the bill.
Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat, said he believes the legislation checks a lot of boxes for his constituents, including on the front-burner issue of the day, inflation.
“This is about reducing inflation. If you look at inflation, one-third of the inflation in the last quarter was automobiles, and it’s because there’s a shortage of chips,” Kilmer said. “So this is about, one, making sure that we’re making things in the United States, and two, about reducing costs.”

Source: Voice of America