Published On: Wed, Apr 10th, 2024

US Air Force secretary to fly in AI-operated fighter jet later this year | Politics | News

United States Air Force secretary Frank Kendall will fly on an AI-powered fighter jet later this year.

The US Air Force is setting its sights on an expansive fleet of over 1,000 drone aircrafts that operated autonomously. And Kendall plans to test this innovation for himself.

In the cockpit of one of the converted F-16s, he will join forces with a pilot who will only be present to observe and control should anything take an unexpected turn.

“There will be a pilot with me who will just be watching, as I will be, as the autonomous technology works,” Kendall stated during the Senate Appropriations Committee defence panel discussion.

“Hopefully neither he or I will be needed to fly the airplane.”

Drone warfare’s rapid rise from an auxiliary combat function to a primary weapon highlights its importance in conflict zones.

In Ukraine, where drones pose a constant threat, civilians use them for both defensive and offensive purposes, from acting as Russian targets to utilising equipped drones for surveillance against the enemy.

Similarly, in the Middle East, Iranian-backed militias and militant factions employ high-tech aerial, naval and underwater drones to target bases and commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

The Air Force has been planning for its fleet of collaborative combat aircraft (CCAs) for several years, envisioning a scenario where one manned jet can control multiple AI-driven drones, referred to as “loyal wingmen.”

The specifics of the drone fleet, such as size and platform, remain under wraps.

Kendall revealed that a test flight using a converted F-16 will be conducted for him to assess the technology behind the future fleet. The fleet is being designed with future warfare in mind, particularly potential conflict with China.

China’s rapid modernisation of its anti-access capabilities has made it risky to send manned crews too close. Drone aircraft could enhance the service’s ability to penetrate these defences, providing support in various future missions like surveillance or jamming.

The Air Force has requested $559 million in the 2025 budget for continued research and development of the future CCA air system. “The initial role for the aircraft was going to be counter-air, but it will have the potential to do other things,” Kendall said.

He also suggested that the drone fleet would be more cost-effective than developing new manned jets, with each drone estimated to cost about a quarter to a third of an F-35 fighter, or around $20 million each.

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