The algorithm, developed by Heron Systems, easily defeated the fighter pilot in all five rounds that capped off a yearlong competition hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Credit: USAF photo.

Man vs. machine in the air.

It was bound to happen at some point — and now we know for sure, it will happen in 2024.

So says US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who announced Wednesday that the Pentagon intends to conduct live trials pitting tactical aircraft controlled by artificial intelligence against human pilots, Aaron Mehta and Andrew Eversden of C4ISR.net reported.

The announcement comes three weeks after an AI algorithm defeated a human pilot in a simulated dogfight between F-16s, something Esper described as an example of the “tectonic impact of machine learning” for the Defense Department’s future.

The AI agent’s resounding victory demonstrated the ability of advanced algorithms to outperform humans in virtual dogfights, the report said.

“These simulations will culminate in a real-world competition involving full-scale tactical aircraft in 2024,” Esper said in prepared remarks delivered to the department’s Artificial Intelligence Symposium.

The Aug. 20 test was the finale of the Pentagon research agency’s AI air combat competition.

The algorithm, developed by Heron Systems, easily defeated the fighter pilot in all five rounds that capped off a yearlong competition hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the report said.

Heron’s AI system gained notoriety throughout the competition for its aggressiveness and the accuracy of its shot.

But the system wasn’t perfect. Heron often made an error in basic fighter maneuvers by turning away from enemy aircraft to where the AI thought the other aircraft would go. It was then unable to recover throughout the fights, the report said.

There are a lot caveats and disclaimers to add in here,” Col. Dan Javorsek, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, said after the test, including that the AI had significant information that might not be available in an actual combat scenario.

Military officials have long eyed the potential for AI to control aircraft, whether as part of a “loyal wingman” setup where a number of systems are controlled by one pilot, or through taking existing systems and making them optionally manned, the report said.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper: “History informs us that those who are first to harness once-in-a-generation technologies often have a decisive advantage on the battlefield for years to come. Credit: Handout.

Meanwhile, Esper also told attendees at the symposium that AI has the potential to change the battlefield, and the country that’s first to field it will have enormous advantages over competitors, Jim Garamone of DoD reported.

“History informs us that those who are first to harness once-in-a-generation technologies often have a decisive advantage on the battlefield for years to come,” the secretary said.

“I experienced this firsthand during Operation Desert Storm, when the United States’ military’s smart bombs, stealth aircraft and satellite-enabled GPS helped decimate Iraqi forces and their Soviet equipment.” 

Artificial intelligence has the potential to be even more far-reaching than those technologies.

“Unlike advanced munitions or next-generation platforms, artificial intelligence is in a league of its own, with the potential to transform nearly every aspect of the battlefield, from the back office to the front lines,” he said. “That is why we cannot afford to cede the high ground to revisionist powers intent on bending, breaking or reshaping international rules and norms in their favor — to the collective detriment of others.” 

Esper noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin said the nation that leads in AI will be the “ruler of the world,” and Russia has increased investments in the technology.

“His intent is to employ any possible advantage to expand Russia’s influence and chip away at the sovereignty of others,” Esper said. 

The Russians used a sophisticated and well-coordinated combination of unmanned aerial vehicles, cyberattacks, and artillery barrages to inflict severe damage on Ukrainian forces when they invaded that country.

“Since then, Moscow has announced the development of AI-enabled autonomous systems across ground vehicles, aircraft, nuclear submarines and command and control,” he said. “We expect them to deploy these capabilities in future combat zones.”

Esper also took a shot at China, contrasting American ethics and values when it comes to the emergence of AI.

“Beijing is constructing a 21st-century surveillance state designed to wield unprecedented control over its own people,” Esper said.

“With hundreds of millions of cameras strategically located across the country and billions of data points generated by the Chinese Internet of Things, the CCP will soon be able to identify almost anyone entering a public space, and censor dissent in real time.”

The US is pioneering a vision for the emerging technology that protects the Us Constitution and the rights of all Americans, he said.

“We approach AI as we have other high-tech breakthroughs throughout our department’s history — with rigorous standards for testing and fielding capabilities and the highest ethical expectations,” Esper said. “Technology may constantly change, but our commitment to our core values does not.”

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