Unmanned Aviation Warfare Centers are being built into Nimitz- and Ford-class carriers to operate Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial tanker and other drones that the Navy might operate from its aircraft carriers. Credit: Boeing.

It was some time in the mid-1970s, I’d ripped up my left knee playing rugby and had a full leg cast, but somehow I made it to Windsor airport with a couple of buddies, on a super hot July day in southern Ontario, to watch an amazing airshow.

We arrived early to get a front row seat, and they brought a lawn chair for me, so that I could survive the day – my knee, which included a pin to keep it together, was still in pretty bad shape, but I was a young pilot and there was no way I was going to miss this.

Like most good airshows, it had a good mix of new and old, especially old warbirds, including P-51 Mustangs and even Spitfires — by far, the best show in these parts before or since.

But what I was about to see, I wouldn’t forget for a lifetime.

It involved legendary pilot Bob Hoover and his twin-engine Aero Commander Shrike.

I had no idea who Bob Hoover was. I didn’t know he was a Second World War veteran who flew with the great Chuck Yeager, strafing enemy positions after the Normandy invasion, or that he escaped a POW camp by stealing a German plane.

Hoover performed amazing aerobatics in the Shrike – some with one engine out – drawing “oohs” and “ahhs” from the packed crowd in the blistering heat.

But what I distinctly recall, is him pushing the Shrike through some mind-blowing maneuvers after shutting off both engines, coming in hot and landing on one gear, then the other gear, finally greasing it perfectly on the runway … and, as a theatrical touch, rolling up to the crowd and jumping out of the plane to take a well-deserved bow.

All without engine power! Both props were feathered!

Whether anyone knew it or not, we had just witnessed one of the greatest pilots in the world, a masterful work of stick and rudder.

Musk shocks the military brass

This great feat of piloting came to my mind this year, when billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk told a packed audience of military brass at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Florida that “the fighter jet era has passed.”

That’s right, passed. Over and done with. Take a deep breath.

When asked about his thoughts on the future of warfare in the air domain, Musk – never one to be boring – didn’t hold back:

“For the air domain … things are definitely going to go into, kind of … locally autonomous drone warfare … is where the future will be…. It’s not [that] I want the future to be this, this is what the future will be, autonomous drone warfare….

“At a local level … I can’t believe I am saying this because this is dangerous, but this is simply what will occur. Drones locally will be autonomous, but I think we still want to retain the authority to damage or destroy anything that isn’t an autonomous drone. Keep the authority back there with a person in the room. The fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones.”

While Musk may have stretched things a bit by declaring the end of manned fighter aircraft, as a child of the 1960s and the heroics of Chuck Yeager and The Right Stuff – didn’t we all want to become fighter pilots or astronauts? – the comments left a distinctly bad aftertaste.

The critics jumped on him, of course.

But the very thought that drones – which are cheaper, are more stealthy, can stay airborne longer, pack cameras and sensors and deliver weapons with great accuracy without risk to the controller sitting in an air-conditioned room thousands of kilometers away – are going to take over some day, is a downright punch in the gut to a hero-worshipping Boomer like myself.

Worse yet, there seemed to be some truth in what Musk was saying.

Air & Space reports that the US Navy is in the process of installing specialized mini-control centers for drones on its aircraft carriers as they go through overhauls and maintenance.

At a recent conference, Captain Chuck Ehnes, the US Navy’s in-service aircraft-carrier program manager, said the Unmanned Aviation Warfare Centers are being built into Nimitz- and Ford-class carriers to operate Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial tanker and other drones that the navy will operate from its aircraft carriers in the near future, Air & Space reported.

“It’s a big aircraft, it’s robust, it’s built as a tanker, but it’s probably a stepping-stone to other capabilities,” Vice-Admiral Bill Merz said in an interview with USNI News.

Future aircraft “are conceptual right now until we get this thing into the fleet and see how it survives in a sea environment and how it integrates with the air wing.”

In fact, the retinue of carrier-based drones will likely expand in coming years.

A study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, DC, recommends the creation of an air wing consisting of only 20 piloted aircraft, plus 24 drones equipped for electronic warfare and missile defense, Air & Space reported.

That’s almost a 50-50 split.

So much for Tom Cruise

Let’s face it, watching a drone land and take off from an aircraft carrier and shoot down bad guys to the tune of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” just isn’t the same as seeing Tom Cruise in an F-14 Tomcat, a la Top Gun. Surely, style has to matter?

If you have the feeling that our world is eroding, you’re not alone.

According to The War Zone, the US Air Force Skyborg system, which the service revealed last year, aims to develop a suite of systems that will form a single artificial intelligence-driven “computer brain” that would be able to fly future low-cost “loyal wingman” type drones, which would work together with manned aircraft, and potentially fully autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles, or UCAVs.

The USAF also plans to acquire unmanned aircraft to support the development of the Skyborg package and possibly carry a final version of the systems operationally by 2023, The War Zone reported.

Boeing was awarded an $805-million contract to develop four MQ-25As. The company based the design on a prototype built for the canceled Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) competition. Photo: Boeing.

“I expect the first things that we’ll do will not appear as sexy as what you might imagine in a movie but will be completely game-changing,” Will Roper, US assistant secretary of the air force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said in March 2019.

Game changing is probably an understatement, and we’ll pass on that movie, by the way.

It goes without saying the Russians and the Chinese are heading the same way – both are throwing big money into R&D for combat drones and unmanned aircraft.

According to Popular Mechanics, Russia’s new Su-57 stealth fighter is reportedly undergoing unmanned testing. The Sukhoi Su-57, codenamed “Felon” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is a large twin-engine stealth fighter in the same class as the USAF’s F-22 Raptor.

Last year also saw the introduction of the S-70 Okhotnik (“Hunter-B”) strike drone.

China holds the advantage

China’s lineup is even more impressive.

It features China’s two high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) drones, the Devine Eagle and Soar Eagle (green arrows), the War Zone reports.

It also includes the Wing Loong series of Predator and Reaper-like and the smaller Rainbow remotely pilot vehicle (blue arrows), two prominent stealthy flying-wing drones, including the large Sharp Sworn UCAV and the smaller surveillance oriented type known as the Tian Ying, that has been displayed publicly  (red arrows).

Then there is the jet-powered Cloud Shadow (black arrow) and the Tengden TB001 twin-boom medium-altitude, long-endurance drone (yellow arrow), the War Zone reports.

But there is something abjectly terrifying at the thought of death by a machine-driven AI robot without a conscience.

I recall attending a US Army conference at AUSA in Washington, DC, last October, and the subject of the discussion was how much leeway to give to the robotic killers. Not whether to let them loose on the battlefield, mind you, but how much freedom to give them, so they don’t start killing us too, you see.

Later, at an aerospace shindig at a posh DC bar, I chatted with a retired US general who looked like he could still run a marathon. I asked him, “General, with all this talk of robots, artificial intelligence and multi-domain warfare, who will be left to charge the pillbox?”

It brought a big smile to his still youngish looking face. “Between you and me, I feel the same way,” he said, “I think we must always have a human in the loop.”

And speaking of humans in the loop … let me recount another memory.

The flying pie plate

While driving into Edwards Air Force Base, I had the good fortune to see a giant pie plate, low, on the deck, maybe a couple hundred feet over the dry lake bed, at great speed, doing a knife edge turn, followed by an F-16 chase plane.

The pie plate, of course, was a B-2 Stealth bomber … flying in a way I have never seen before. Doing something nearly impossible. Perhaps that top secret anti-gravitic wing technology had something to do with it, I don’t know.

The fact is, we will always need humans to push the envelope.

People like Bob Hoover. People like those brave test pilots who willingly gave up their lives in the 1950s for aerospace progress at Edwards Air Force Base. Living, breathing people, with a conscience, who will weigh the consequences of their actions before they hit the button.

Josef Stalin had a saying: “When a person dies, it’s a tragedy … when 5,000 die, it’s a number.”

Likewise, American drones have literally killed hundreds of innocent people around the world, as the price of silencing so-called high-value terrorist targets. The unfortunate collateral damage of instant incineration — they don’t even hear it coming.

According to the Human Rights Institute, debate about drone strikes often centers on who is killed: Are they “militants” or “civilians”?

In the absence of official information, casualty estimates provided by media reports from war zones fill the gap; however, the estimates are incomplete and may undercount the extent of reported civilian deaths.

A state accounting of who is really being killed appears not to be forthcoming, because there is no public pressure to do so.

Not even the much-vaunted former US president Barack Obama gave a whit about the human cost of drastically increased drone attacks carried out by US forces during his White House tenure. In fact, he even joked about it.

That is because drones are deeply impersonal and have made us impersonal too. The temptation to use them as killer assassins is too great.

As one military intelligence source told me dryly: “They can think faster and respond faster than us, all with no risk of human life … and it’s all based on logic, no emotional decisions. Like it or not, we have created machines that far outperform us.”

Maybe we can’t bring back the inspiring days of Bob Hoover and his amazing Aero Commander Shrike, but we can remember his contribution and that of others. God forbid, we ever lose that human connection.

Now bring on Top Gun: Maverick (the long-awaited sequel is premiering in December 2020).

Dave Makichuk is a veteran writer and copy-editor with 35 years’ media experience who lives in Calgary and freelances for Asia Times. A dedicated Detroit Red Wings, Tigers & Lions fan, Makichuk relishes his chosen role as enemy of the state, and defender of the oppressed and downtrodden.