Elon, Are We Really Debating The End Of The Manned Fighter Yet Again?

Elon Musk has a rich history of making remarks that aren’t well thought out. (Photo: Royal Society, Duncan Hull)

Recently Elon Musk stated that drones will completely replace manned fighter jets, stating the F-35 has “no chance” against a drone. Those with a good knowledge of history will know about the 1957 Defence White paper which said the exact same thing.

Simply put, he has no knowledge of military aviation or even, really, what war is. BUT he’s got a semblance of a point, but only just.

What he is saying has been said time and time again.

The 1957 white paper managed to almost destroy the British aviation industry yet was completely off. It stated that missiles would replace aircraft and nuclear weapons need only be delivered by missile.

And yet, some 63 years later the manned combat aircraft is still the king of the skies. Funny that!

Aircraft Will Evolve

Considering the British missiles of the era it is impossible to understand how the conclusion could have been reached. In fact, US missile performance over a decade later in Vietnam seemed to emphasise the point. US fighter aircraft fired 612 AIM-7 missiles in Vietnam and only 97 hit their targets, resulting in only 56 kills. In percentage terms that means that only 9.2% of the missiles fired resulted in kills.

The AIM-7 remains in service and has matured from the awful mess it was in Vietnam. Weapons do miss and systems evolve and that has little bearing over whether or not a system should be manned or unmanned. (Photo U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

As surface-to-air missiles evolved so did the means of defeating them. Vietnam saw the coming of age of the “Wild Weasel” suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) mission. This really is as clear an example as possible that the manned aircraft of the time did, and will continue to, evolve.

What this goes to show is we can’t foresee the future in ten years, let alone in a hundred years’ time.

Indeed, the fighter isn’t the only weapons system that was supposed to become obsolete but didn’t. Main Battle Tanks were meant to have disappeared with the advent of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs). Aircraft carriers are also meant to have disappeared due to the threat from land-based aircraft but again they’ve continued to evolve to meet new threats.

Musk also stated that laser weapons will make manned aircraft completely vulnerable but is that even logical? If these weapons exist why wouldn’t they be mounted the aircraft that may be attacked by them?

A perfect example of this is the Tempest currently in development at a consortium led by BAE Systems. It was again reported in the Daily Express just last week that Rolls-Royce are working on generators that could provide enough power for airborne Directed Energy Weapons. For an in-depth analysis of what Tempest is we have an article all about the potential of that aircraft.

Not only this but the aircraft is being developed with a synergy between manned and unmanned systems in mind. Manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) has been demonstrated time and time again in recent years. Tempest will be optionally manned, meaning that not every aircraft of a strike package will need a pilot. What unmanned systems allow is to minimise the risk to humans but not eliminate it.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum Matters

Datalinks have revolutionised warfare by allowing everyone from a pilot right up to a battlespace commander to see the same picture. Modern warfare relies immensely on the electromagnetic spectrum and in future as much combat will occur over this spectrum as happens for control of air, land, and sea.

The problem with datalinks is simply put; they can be jammed!

To control an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, we will need to be able to communicate with it and this will not always be possible in the traditional way. SATCOM and radios are too vulnerable and therefore we will see a move back towards line-of-sight communications systems. This means that someone still needs to be there to provide control over the unmanned systems.

The Future Is Teams


Two EA-18G Growlers flying in formation. Tests have shown that while some aircraft in a package will be unmanned there will still be a need for crews to go into harm’s way. (US Navy Photo)

The idea of ‘Loyal Wingmen’ has gotten a lot of traction over recent years and it is clear to see why. If one fighter can do the job of five you need less of them, hence reducing both the risk to humans and cost.

Recently news out of the US stated that the US Navy has successfully controlled two electronic warfare EA-18G Growlers from a third aircraft. What this means is the US is now at a point where it can launch three aircraft on a mission but only risk one crew. But this relies on someone still being in harm’s way.

Again, these tests are seemingly exclusively line-of-sight ideas without the idea of long-range operations away from human control. Without this control there is only one question; Are we ever going to see completely unmanned wars?


Much has been made of completely autonomous drones, however, these will most likely be banned by international treaty much like biological and chemical weapons. Therefore, active control over weapons is essential, as we see today with many rules of engagement having human-in-the-loop (HITL) requirements. At the end of the day, someone must be responsible for taking life and a drone will never be able to take that responsibility!

Who do you prosecute for war crimes if a computer makes the decision? There is no way of fighting a war without risking human life. That is something much lower than war akin to video games. War will never be like video games as some people seem to believe.

Warfare is indeed changing but it will remain as septic and horrid as it ever has been. Modern combat has shown us that war is still one of the most horrid things a human can experience. Just because we have technology doesn’t make war anti-septic.

So What About the Future?

Did anyone in 1939 foresee what warfare is today? Did anyone in Napoleonic times foresee the First World War?

The UK government as an example seems to be content with things how they are, and we are seeing the replacement of existing systems with like-for-like replacements. This is occurring across the board, from ships to tanks to rifles. We need to think about the future of warfare, not current warfare.

Looking at the move away from counter-insurgency operations it seems to look like the UK thinks it will be fighting repeats of the Falklands Conflict. This just isn’t going to happen.

We are about to reach what can only be described as a “Dreadnought Moment.”

With weapons systems such as DEWs and railguns coming online, we are going to again see a revolution on how wars are fought but the end of it will stay the same. Warfare is between man and man, not between man and machine.

Indeed, we will see changes where it becomes as cheap to defence as to attack however there will always be people in danger.

While drones will change the way that we fight wars in the future it will only be war when people are put in harm’s way.

If a potential adversary shoots down an unmanned system such as an MQ-4C Triton does it matter? You’ve lost some money, but no one got hurt. Now replace that Triton with a P-8 Poseidon with its nine-man crew. Suddenly things have become serious.

Drones killing drones is meaningless and therefore it just isn’t war. The revolution will occur, but manned aircraft will continue to have an essential role to play.




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