The F-16’s Replacement Won’t Have a Pilot at All
The U.S. Air Force plans to have an operational combat drone by 2023. The service plans to build out a family of unmanned aircraft, known as Skyborg, capable of carrying weapons and actively participating in combat. The Air Force’s goal is to build up a large fleet of armed, sort-of disposable jets that don’t need conventional runways to take off and land.
The Air Force, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology, expects to have the first operational Skyborg aircraft ready by 2023. Skyborg will be available with both subsonic and supersonic engines, indicating both attack and fighter jet versions. The basic design (or designs) will likely be stealthy, carrying guided bombs, air defense suppression missiles, and air-to-air missiles inside internal weapons bays. Interesting, according to AvWeek, the Air Force is considering Skyborg as a replacement not only for the MQ-9 Reaper attack drone but early versions of the F-16 manned fighter.
Here’s a video produced by Boeing of their Loyal Wingman UAV, which is expected to join the Skyborg competition.
Skyborg was originally described as an artificial intelligence capable of being fielded two ways. The first would be as the software equivalent of R2D2 in the rear of an X-Wing fighter, a flying copilot designed to assist the human pilot by taking on minor, but still important tasks. This would free up a human fighter to concentrate on flying the jet fighting the enemy.
Skyborg AI was also supposed to act as the brain for the Air Force’s first combat drones, drones that could fly alongside fighter jets and act as a “loyal wingman” to a crewed fighter. Such a jet could act as the bait in an ambush, carry extra weapons, or perform any number of roles. Skyborgs could also fly high risk combat missions, such as hunting enemy air defense systems and attacking heavily defended ground targets, without risking a human pilot. Other missions might include escorting unarmed aircraft such as tankers, transports, and AWACs planes, and aerial reconnaissance. Of the two Skyborg concepts, the AI-powered drone seems to have priority right now.
Skyborg is designed to be an “attritable” airplane designed to fly a mere handful of miles compared to fully loaded jets like the F-35A. This keeps costs down, allowing the Air Force to buy large numbers of the plane. Keeping Skyborg cheap also makes the jets expendable under certain circumstances. A Skyborg pilot might fly a mission against ground targets and expend all of the drone’s weapons–only to see a ballistic missile launcher armed with chemical warheads lumber out of a tree line below. Rather than wait for armed reinforcements to arrive on the scene the pilot would have the option of using his drone as a kamikaze weapon to destroy the launcher.