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When a dumb bomb is not enough

A View From the Edge

Think the early 1950s… things are in development in secret airbases that you will only get to see 10 years from now — but that does not mean they aren’t already there, ready to be deployed and — in every event — years ahead of what you and the world think we’re building. Now, you may think that being first is good for the USA, but first — like the A Bomb — has implications that go beyond a momentary advantage.

So, the next combat aircraft to enter the U.S. Air Force will not be a manned sixth-generation fighter or even the Northrop Grumman B-21 bomber. In 2023 — if not already in secret — the Air Force expects to fly the first operational versions of a new unmanned aircraft system (UAS) called Skyborg. What the heck is that? It’s a provocative blending of flight with a cybernetic organism.

The problem the Air Force has is that cruise missiles are one-time use and expensive as a simple bomb. And modern war fighter aircraft like the F-35 and B-21 are made to last for decades — making them expensive to buy, fly and keep operational. In the middle of those needs are what are called “attributable” weapons — weapons with a limited use and lifetime of use. They are cheaper than long-term aircraft and, while more expensive than a cruise missile, they can carry 10 missiles for less than twice the cost. How do they do that? They are factory built with planned obsolescence and a serious AI brain — the cyberborg part. 

“Even though we call Skyborg an attritable aircraft, I think we’ll think of them more like reusable weapons,” said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force. “We’ll do whatever number of takeoffs and landings they’re ‘spec’d’ for, and then we’ll attrit them out of the force as targets and just buy them at a steady rate.” 

Like a Ford production line that never has to stop.

And the Air Force is planning to retire the F-16 and MQ-9s within this decade and replacing them with the Skyborg, Skyborg Squadrons and teams of “pilots,” in closed airconditioned trailers — remote controlling launch and clearance for weapons deployment. But who’s really flying the subsonic and supersonic planes? The AI on board. The core of the Skyborg program is the software; specifically, the military aviation equivalent of the algorithm-fed convolutional neural networks that have trickled down to driverless cars.

“I expect that the ground pilots, depending on the mission, decide: Does the Skyborg return and land with them and then go to fight another day, or is it the end of its life and it’s going to go on a one-way mission?” Roper explains. “I don’t think it’ll just be fighters, I think they’ll fly with bombers. I think they’ll fly with tankers to provide extra defensive capability. That’s what I love about their versatility and the fact that we can take risks with them.”

If Skyborg is the future, it began on July 8 when it was revealed as a program and the Air Force admitted it is in their budget.

 

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, currently resides in New Mexico. 

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