Asked by Lt. Gen. John Thompson whether he had any innovative ideas about how aerial combat could be revolutionized, paceX founder Elon Musk responded: "The fighter jet era has passed. Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones.” Credit:

Hushed murmurs and laughter rippled across the audience at the Air Force conference in sunny Orlando, Fla.

A group of select US military brass attending a fireside chat at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, had just taken a punch to the gut.

Asked by Lt. Gen. John Thompson, who leads the Space and Missile Systems Center, whether he had any innovative ideas about how aerial combat could be revolutionized, billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk responded: “Locally autonomous drone warfare is where it’s at, where the future will be,” Musk said. “It’s not that I want the future to be this, that’s just what the future will be … The fighter jet era has passed. Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones.”

The man known for pioneering disruptive technologies like reusable rocket ships and electronic cars had just told the symposium, the fighter jet era was done, Defense News reported.

And there was worse to come …

China’s economy is going to eventually reach “at least twice” the size of the America economy, and the only way for the United States to remain the dominant military power is for the US to rapidly innovate, Breaking Defense reported.

“The foundation of war is economics,” Musk said. “”In the absence of radical innovation, the US will be militarily second.”

Musk explained that China “has a lot of smart, hardworking people that are going to do a lot of great things,” in spite of the country’s authoritarian political system, Breaking Defense reported.

But the discussion — and Musk’s willingness to go off script — highlighted a still-apparent culture clash between the more conservative, risk-averse Air Force and the dynamic, freewheeling commercial space industry, even as the Defense Department stands up the Space Force and casts an eager eye on a space-technology boom, Defense News reported.

The SpaceX founder encouraged young airmen to study physics and computer technology, saying both disciplines have “very good predictive power.”

He predicted that AI would likely be the most transformative technology to emerge over the next five years. And he urged the service to take big risks to get “radical outcomes.

“Not to cause controversy, but in my opinion, the Joint Strike Fighter — there should be a competitor to JSF. I know that’s [a] controversial subject,” he said, referring to Lockheed Martin’s F-35, Defense News reported.

Lockheed beat out Boeing in 2001 for the JSF contract, but the downselect and the cancellation of the F-22 program left the Defense Department with no other fifth-generation alternative to the F-35, Defense News reported.

Twice during the hourlong chat, Musk urged the Air Force to make the Space Force emulate Starfleet, the iconic space organization made famous in “Star Trek.”

“We’ve got to make Starfleet happen,” he said as the audience applauded. “We want real big space ships that can go far places. And this will probably get me into the most trouble of all: I think there should be a new uniform.

“When the public thinks about Space Force, that’s what they think,” he added. “We want the sci-fi futures, the good sci-fi futures, to be real. And, ideally, to become real while we’re still alive.”