The late Robin Olds used to tell a funny story about his experience commanding a fighter wing in Vietnam. Olds had been a World War II ace and, during the development of the F-4 Phantom II, had become a pain to the Air Force staff during the 1950s for his insistence that any new fighter should have a gun and be capable of turning dogfights. The original F-4 lacked both. The Air Force gave the Phantom a powerful radar and missile technology biased toward engagements beyond visual range.
So when Olds got to Vietnam, what did he encounter? Turning dogfights for which the F-4 was ill-equipped. Senior military staffs are often faulted for weapons and tactics suited to the last war, but in Vietnam, the reverse was true: They were fighting the next war against an enemy using lesser technology with lethal effectiveness.
As the Air Force and the aviation industry goes full tilt into unmanned aerial vehicles, I have to wonder if it's about to make the same mistake again. It's been widely reported that the services are already training more UAV pilots than manned aircraft pilots and this ratio will accelerate exponentially not just in the mid-term, but over just a few years.
It's happening around the globe. In his book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, P. W. Singer reports that two thirds of world military expenditures on drones are being spent by countries other than the U.S. That means that every power will have to develop means to defend against drones as well as field them. This has disturbing implications, since rogue powers or terrorist groups might use drones as multipliers against larger powers.
At this stage, it looks as though robotic flight development is in a similar track as aircraft development in general was between about 1938 and 1945, when progress was rapid and dramatic. The danger of this is twofold. Our enemies may acquire potent technology to use against us and we may become susceptible to group think that leads to too strong a tilt away from manned aircraft and toward drones. If, as in Vietnam, a future enemy wants to fight with manned aircraft, will we respond with the same or have advanced drones to do the dirty work?
I don't envy the services having to make this assessment. I certainly don't know the answer myself. And it's not just the military caught up in the drone wars. On the civil side, drones are coming into use for law enforcement and scientific work. I was stunned when a third-party company announced a pilotless version of the Diamond DA42 twin for survey work. I had no idea anyone was investing in this technology.
We've heard a rumor or two that the freight companies are angling toward crewless aircraft to fly cargo autonomously from one destination to the next. That idea meets my definition of "disruptive technology."
I don't know how something can be exciting and creepy at the same time, but this certainly is.