NEW YORK (AP) The dashing fighter pilot, with his white silk scarf and burnished leather jacket, is among the most celebrated icons of American military lore.
Slowly, however, technology is pushing the fighter pilot out of the cockpit.
“I think his days are numbered,” said Glenn Buchan, a Rand defense air power analyst.
In the not-too-distant future, trained fighter pilots may find themselves sitting at a computer on the ground, controlling an unmanned aircraft or as many as a half-dozen of them that may be flying over another continent.
The transformation is already under way.
In Afghanistan, the United States has used unmanned aerial vehicles, long a tool of reconnaissance, in an attack role for the first time.
In a few instances, a Predator UAV controlled remotely by CIA personnel on the ground, fired Hellfire missiles as part of air strikes on al Qaeda and Taliban targets. The strikes killed dozens, including al Qaeda military chief Mohammed Atef, U.S. intelligence officials said on the condition of anonymity.
“There’s no doubt we’re going to do more and more of this as time unfolds,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior analyst with the Brookings Institution.
Military experts say advances in sensors, communications, imaging and artificial intelligence will soon allow pilotless aircraft to do everything a manned aircraft can, at a fraction of the cost and without risking pilots’ lives.
The unmanned planes may take over ground attack, and perhaps even dogfighting roles currently performed by planes such as the F-15 and F-18.
“We see no future fighters with humans in them,” said Mr. Buchan, author of a recent Rand study on UAVs that was just classified by the Air Force.
Although the Pentagon plans to purchase up to 3,000 of its next-generation fighter, Lockheed’s joint strike fighter, Mr. Buchan said Rand found “no compelling reason to have humans on board” certain military aircraft and often good reason to replace a human with a machine.
“It’s not clear that the human’s adding anything, and his biological shortcomings limit the capabilities of the aircraft,” he said.
The use of drones dates to the early 1960s, when the United States flew them to spy on China and drop leaflets over Vietnam. In the early 1970s, the U.S. military experimented with an armed drone called the Firebee, using it to drop bombs and fire missiles in tests.
Israel may have been the first to use armed drones in a combat ground-attack role, according to research published by the U.S. Air Force. It used drones in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and also sent UAVs to scout Syrian air defenses in its invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Until it was modified by the CIA, the U.S. Air Force’s Predator, a $2.5 million UAV built for spying, wasn’t intended to fire missiles.
In January, the Air Force will test-fly the first U.S. drone designed for combat. The Boeing-built UCAV, or Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, is designed to handle one of the most dangerous missions, attacking enemy air defense sites like radar and surface-to-air missile batteries.
The X-45 model UCAV is designed to fly a 650-mile round-trip mission, loitering perhaps a half-hour over a target, and drop 3,000 pounds of guided bombs, said Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher.
If the UCAV’s tests go well, some predict the drone will eventually put planes and pilots out of work by stealing some ground-attack duties from the forthcoming joint strike fighter.
At $10 million to $15 million apiece, the X-45 UCAV, without all the expensive human requirements for life-support systems and visual instruments, would cost about a third as much as the $45 million JSF.