Pilots vs. Drones

As someone who grew up devouring books on WWI-era fighter aces, and spent countless hours building model WWI and WWII fighter planes (I could probably put together a Spitfire with my eyes closed), I’m probably not a very objective judge of the idea making the rounds that the F-35 might be that last generation of U.S. piloted fighter/fighter-bomber planes. David Axe kicked things off, based on a comment by Adm. Mike Mullen in Senate testimony. Matthew Yglesias and Robert Farley make the case based on the relative expense compared to drones, with drones obviously coming in far cheaper. And Abu Muqawama’s guest blogger, Ibn Muqawama, runs through the reasons why Chinese military doctrine make fighter planes less relevant, though in reference to the F-22.

But whether or not pilotless drones will replace piloted aircraft in the future, there are two arguments in particular I’d make against the idea that they should replace them.

First, there’s the question of capacity. Once you phase out a military capacity, it becomes extremely difficult to restore it. That goes for manpower capacity (i.e., training), but also for industrial capacity. Clearly there will still be a need for, and training of, jet fighter pilots to man the already existing fleet. But if drones become the central element of air power moving forward, both manpower and industrial capacity for piloted fighters will suffer. And the cost of restoring them when needed will then become magnified.

Second, the idea that traditional air dominance is no longer relevant — that is, that we will never need to restore a piloted fighter plane capacity — might be doctrinally sound, as Ibn Muqawama suggests. But I have my doubts as to whether it will survive a dose of reality. If war were decided by doctrines, or prevented by deterrence, it’s unlikely there would ever be any shooting. But the truth is, wars happen, often in the face of overwhelming logic arguing against them. And when the shooting starts, it often reveals the limitations of doctrine (e.g., the Maginot Line), or the limitations of an adversary’s ability to implement it. To assume, a priori, that our air dominance will be ineffective because the Chinese intend to accurately target our forward air bases with missiles is to put quite a bit of faith in the Chinese army’s ability to accomplish its objectives.

In saying that, I’m neither advocating war with China, arguing that it’s inevitable, nor dismissing the Chinese doctrine’s asymmetric cleverness. Neither am I arguing against the use and continued development of drones. But to speculate about a future without piloted fighter planes or fighter-bombers doesn’t reflect the balance that has been the watchword of the new defense thinking, as represented by the budget requests and the upcoming QDR.