Friday, July 1, 2011

How Long Will It Be Before Air Force & Navy Cockpit Pilots Are Obsolete?


An MQ-1B Predator unmanned aircraft takes off for a training mission at Creech Air Force Base, NV. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Recently there has been a debate raging in the press concerning the use of drones and the morality of using them to attack “enemy” targets. Some have even suggested that using them against human targets is a form of assassination. My question is: what is the difference between attacking targets with a manned aircraft and a drone except the physical location of the pilot flying the “airborne vehicle.” I would further suggest that it is just a matter of time before ALL combat aircraft are “Remotely Piloted Vehicles” (RPVs), not because of the obvious concerns for the safety of the pilot but because the limiting factor on aircraft performance is going to be how much abuse the human body can endure. We know the limits of the human body but as aircraft technology continues to leap forward, we are going to reach a point where the aircraft will be able to “out perform” the pilot so the only way to take full advantage of the aircraft’s performance will be to remove the “limiting factor” – the pilot – from the cockpit. A drone can simply turn sharper and accelerate quicker than the human body can tolerate so an adversary’s drone will be able to defeat any piloted aircraft we field.

Much to the horror of Air Force and Navy Pilots, a cocky and arrogant bunch, modern technology is going to make them obsolete in the foreseeable future. Why? Because the human body can only withstand so much abuse and a constant 16 g for a minute is often fatal while when vibration is also experienced, relatively low peak g levels can be severely damaging if they are at the resonance frequency of organs and connective tissues. The g-force (g = gravitational) associated with an object is its acceleration relative to free-fall.

Aircraft exert g-force along the axis aligned with the spine which causes significant variation in blood pressure along the length of the pilot’s body thus limiting the maximum g-forces that can be tolerated. A typical person can handle about 5 g before losing consciousness but by using special g-suits and muscles straining techniques, trained military pilots can typically handle a sustained 9 g’s. Hence, we know the limits of the human body but as aircraft technology continues to leap forward, we are going to reach a point where the aircraft will be able to “out perform” the pilot so the only way to take full advantage of the aircraft’s performance is to remove the “limiting factor” – the pilot – from the cockpit.

Removing pilots from cockpits, regardless of how emotionally traumatic it may prove to our brave military aviators, will have to happen as our adversaries perfect their own RPVs capable of out perform any piloted aircraft in our inventory. As a matter of fact, we might eventually have to put “governors” on our aircraft to limit performance to keep within the tolerance of the human body.

Already, RPVs in Afghanistan are being flown very effectively by pilots of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing comfortably (and safely) sitting is a hanger located on Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. Some maintain drone reaction time is a bit slower than piloted high performance aircraft on station and this may be true – for now – but it’s only a matter of time before that is reversed. As aircraft and RPV technology advances and decision support software improves, it is only a matter of time before the pilot is out of the cockpit and even the human pilot may become obsolete as the human mind will be too slow so attack decisions have to be turned over to computers.

Having run this theory by my older brother who spent 26 years as a Navy carrier attack jet pilot, I have heard all the emotional reasons why this will never happen but deep down, even though his heart tells him differently, it’s obvious his brains recognizes the inevitable.