Elon Musk: AI And Space Force Will Obsolete Fighters


Manned fighter aircraft will be supplanted by autonomous air vehicles and reusable space vehicles, said SpaceX and Tesla leader Elon Musk at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Warfare Symposium over the weekend. Musk was interviewed on the topic of innovation by Lt. General John Thompson. Musk is convinced that artificial intelligence and development of unmanned aircraft (“locally autonomous drone warfare”) could be transformative in the near term, making this the end of the jet-fighter era, but that development of reusable rockets is most important of all.  Postulating that reusable rockets could be used in place of ballistic missiles, he feels they could also be transportation. “Like an options list. Uncheck ‘nuke’ and then add ‘landing systems,’” he said.

Musk is, understandably, looking toward space. His take is that a Stark Trek-like Starfleet Academy and a space base is what the public wants. “How do we make Starfleet real? The fastest we can make it real, we should do that. I think we can go a long way towards making Starfleet real and making these sort of utopian or semi-utopian futures real. It will definitely require radical innovation. One can’t get there by incrementally innovating expendable boosters. We need to push for radical breakthroughs. If you don’t push for radical breakthroughs you don’t get radical outcomes,” he said.

“If the United States does not seek great innovations in space, it will be second in space, as sure as night follows day,” he said. “But there is no country more inventive and innovative as the United States.” As part of his reasoning about a country with an agile space presence, he says that reusable rockets are key. “It’s absolutely fundamental to achieve full reusability in access to space,” Musk said. “This is the holy grail of space. Then you have a profound advantage over anyone else.”

In a nearly hourlong interview, Musk touched on several topics, from the business realities of SpaceX, the ideal relationship of risk and reward (small failures should not be penalized but big successes should be greatly rewarded) and myriad other topics.

Marc Cook
KITPLANES Editor in Chief Marc Cook has been in aviation journalism for more than 30 years. He is a 4000-hour instrument-rated, multi-engine pilot with experience in nearly 150 types. He’s completed two kit aircraft, an Aero Designs Pulsar XP and a Glasair Sportsman 2+2, and currently flies a 2002 GlaStar.

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  1. The cutting edge show that SpaceX has been putting on for the world to watch in real time over the past several years is groundbreaking and stunning. Go watch a replay of the Falcon Heavy launch. Pay attention as the first stage boosters stick perfect landings back on the Cape, then stick around to hear their re-entry sonic booms reach human ears long after they landed.

    Having said all that, I’m already against the next war and believe a greater achievement for the human race than mastering the capability to fight from space would be to roll the clock back to when we were innocently dropping bricks from biplanes onto other biplanes before ever mounting guns on them.

  2. SpaceX is doing nothing new or stunning. Stunning is returning 3 men from the moon which was done 50 years ago. Landing boosters back on the pad was examined 30 years ago (Douglas DC-X) and determined overall to be a poor solution. It adds weight, expense, complexity, and it presents an enormous range safety issue. SpaceX has yet to show they are saving any money with this circus stunt. What happens when one of those boosters has a failure while hurtling back toward the coast of Florida at supersonic speeds and ends up crashing into Disney World? One of the boosts has already nearly landed in a public marina.

    We need to quit worshipping Elon Musk. The man is a fraud, a liar, and a bully. He committed the largest act of securities fraud in history. He has repeatedly attack his honest critics is despicable ways. He ignores and insults government regulators. The tolerance of Elon Musk is exactly the problem with this country.

    • One can make various criticisms of SpaceX, but saying that they have “yet to show they are saving any money” isn’t one. Consider a price of $60m-150m for a Falcon Heavy launch of up to 64 tons to low-earth orbit, compared to $350-600m, or maybe more, for a Delta IV Heavy launch of up to 31 tons to low-earth orbit. That lower price comes from somewhere. SpaceX claims it comes in part from reuse.
      Source: “The Falcon Heavy is an absurdly low-cost heavy lift rocket”, Feb 14, 2018 https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/02/three-years-of-sls-development-could-buy-86-falcon-heavy-launches/ ; “Delta IV” / “Performance” https://www.ulalaunch.com/rockets/delta-iv .

      Also, you say “Landing boosters back on the pad was examined 30 years ago (Douglas DC-X) and determined overall to be a poor solution.” Why should we believe that no better solutions have emerged in the subsequent 30 years?

    • Well said and thank you for this.

      He may have created Tesla, but in my opinion he is the worst thing that could happen to that company. He gets so much more credit for things he does not deserve, and I think that personally he is a narcissist and a heathen.

      I drove a Model S performance version a few weeks ago. Compared to my S Class Benz it’s paint and handling and build quality were all poor, and the interior was comically subpar and plain for the price they are asking. Its acceleration was good; but that’s it.

      It was nothing special, and neither is Elon the Muskrat

  3. I too am skeptical of Mr. Musk’s claims. While I can’t summon Scott’s passion, I can take a look back at history.

    Between 1927 and 1939 military thinkers were captivated by the idea that fleets of bombers could bring an adversary to its knees without significant ground operations. Billy Mitchell and Herman Goering (aviation ‘influencers’ of their day) preached this gospel. By 1947 the prevailing dogma was nuclear weapons would, again, obviate ground operations. Its proponents went so far as to claim the mere threat of them would force an adversary not to commit their ground forces. The theory had no greater proponent than Douglas MacArthur, right up until the Chinese Red Army came within a hair’s breadth of forcing him off the Korean peninsula. In the 1960s luminaries like Robert McNamara believed their own battlefield innovation (helicopters) would allow the infantry to out maneuver and encircle guerillas where artillery and air attack would liquidate them with few casualties.

    Now Mr. Musk is offering us a new shining program that can deliver ascendancy in the form of unmanned systems and space forces. Perhaps he is right. Maybe he understands more than his predecessors did. But I think we should reserve plenty of space at Arlington just to be safe.

    • I agree with Scott K., not quite as much with the rest. I won’t try to defend the man’s personal excesses, but there can be little doubt that his innovations have provided a shot in the arm to public interest and enthusiasm for space exploration. Call it showmanship but it’s undeniable that seeing a car get launched into space and landing two rockets on their tails at the same time provided a visceral thrill that NASA hasn’t given us for more than 50 years. And let’s not forget that there’s a good chance that a SpaceX ship will be the first US vehicle to deliver astronauts to the ISS since the end of the shuttle program. Kind of hard to argue with that kind of success.

      • Randall,

        Nobody is arguing with Mr. Musk’s success. My concern is shopping out our national defense to visionaries with a personal stake – a practice that has been problematic in the past.

  4. Thy shall not doubt Elon nor aggravate his truest followers. Rule # 1: What Elon says is truth. Rule # 2: Don’t argue about Rule # 1.

  5. At the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair, one exhibit illustrated a future world where people would be transported throughout cities and elsewhere by large and small autonomous flying machines. The exhibit stated: “This is the world of the 1960s.”