The Air Force Research Lab is working on an "autonomous system to go up against a human, manned system in some sort of air-to-air" test in July 2021. Credit: USAF.

The inevitable moment has arrived — man vs. machine. Wits and training vs. an advanced algorithm. Only we’re not talking about a chess game, or a computer simulation — this battle will take place high in the sky, and many military observers will be watching.

The US Air Force announced it will pit a drone against a fighter jet in an aerial combat demonstration next year, according to a report from Oriana Pawlyk at

Last week, Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, head of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, revealed that the Air Force Research Lab is working on an “autonomous system to go up against a human, manned system in some sort of air-to-air” test in July 2021.

Speaking during a Mitchell Institute event, he said the test will be an indication of how the service’s outlook is growing when it comes to the next “dynamic battlefront,” the report said.

“The drones we’re exploring fit into the broader concept of, ‘It’s time to not talk about X-generation aircraft, it’s time to talk about next generation air power,'” Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said Tuesday when asked about how the test fits into the service’s larger drone enterprise.

“The drones we’re exploring are this ‘next thing’ that make a ton of sense to put on top of your stealth [fighter] advantage — the ability to push something forward,” he said during a video chat, also hosted by the Mitchell Institute, the report said.

The futuristic drone “can be a sensor for you, it can be a jammer for you, it can be a shooter for you,” Roper said. “It’s detecting for you … and all the other things your imagination could dream up, that’s what we’re dreaming up.”

That’s especially true when it comes to leveraging artificial intelligence-driven drones to lead in the battlespace, he added.

The futuristic drone ‘can be a sensor
for you, it can be a jammer for
you, it can be a shooter for you’

Roper has not been shy about using the Air Force’s Skyborg project as an example of how AI can augment an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F-22 Raptor team sent out to conduct strikes, the report said.

“No one has flown with a digital pilot,” he said of Skyborg, which seeks to pair AI with a human piloting a fighter jet — training with its pilot, acting as a sidekick, rapidly thinking through problems and taking command if necessary.

Last year during the Paris Air Show, Roper said discussions were ongoing within the Air Force about the need for a proposed sixth-gen fighter concept, which could be the successor to F-22s and F-35s. But he also said the service is likely to choose something more elaborate, the report said.

“I think that’s going to be a hallmark of sixth generation of air superiority,” he said Tuesday of the drone-fighter pairing.

Skyborg could also fly with bombers and tankers “to provide extra defensive capability,” Roper said. The Air Force launched an official solicitation for Skyborg last month.

Roper said that, regardless of the type of unmanned aircraft headed out to do the mission, artificial intelligence will undoubtedly have a role to play in gathering and quickly disseminating information.

One can only hope the pilot whips the Skyborg, but according to a defense intelligence source, “in close air combat, there is only one move that wins the fight. He who is in first and takes the highest Gs will win.

“This is the only move that will allow you to get sights on your enemy. With-air to-air combat there are only two possible outcomes. Win or die.

“If you try to run your opponent goes to missiles and you are dead. If you are in a dogfight and no one has gotten the advantage then you both run out of altitude and die …

“Sorry to say, the drone can take higher G’s for much longer to get the advantage.”