Radio-controlled flying toys have shot down Maverick, Goose and the whole Top Gun culture

Drones make up a third of the Air Force and the bulk of the future of air war

For almost 70 years U.S. military strategy has been built around super-sophisticated aircraft flown by Top Guns who were able to control the rockets they rode due to a rare mix of highly-developed skills:

  • The ability to calculate force in three dimensions the way pro outfielders do in two dimensions;
  • The fine motor control, aggression and lightning reflexes of world-class boxers;
  • Egos so large and impermeable that – if it weren't for their physical skills and need to commute to work at mach 2 with their hair on fire – would have forced them to become software-industry CEOs instead of pilots.

If the aircraft carriers that transport, feed, fuel, protect and launch them into the danger zone weren't themselves an unprecedented engineering achievement, cutting-edge American fighters and the productively repressed maniacs who fly them would be the ultimate expression of military power and achievement of the 20th century.

21st Century belongs to drones

A Congressional Research Service report published earlier this month revealed that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) rather than human-piloted aircraft has increased so quickly drones now make up fully 30 percent of all Air Force planes.

The Dept. of Defense spent $284 million on UAVs during the year-2000 budget cycle; it spent $3.3 billion – more than 40 times as much – on drones in 2010.

The argument against drones was always that they gave pilots and military or political decision-makers too little information and too little capability to do much good.

In the era of the Hellfire-firing Predators and Global Hawks, both of which can fly around a target for hours, watching it with long-range cameras, chemical detectors, ground-penetrating radar, cell-phone signal interceptors and whatever other surveillance systems they need for an aerial stakeout.

Until the CIA stuck air-to-ground missiles on Predators, the idea of drones – which are not autonomous robots but do depend on semi-autonomous robotic systems to save work for the pilots – was considered bad policy, ineffective militarily and negligent morally.

Without a human at the controls, on site, not in a bunker somewhere using Xbox controllers to fly lite fighter-bombers, the robots would inevitably screw up and bomb mosques full of children rather than terrorist hideouts, or escape into the wilderness on their own and foment rebellion among the machines, dooming us all to horrible, messy deaths at the hands of our blenders and microwaves (because how many of you own a drone big enough to brag about? And those take-apart Styrofoam things don't count.)

Drones, unsexy as they are, are taking over the air war, just as ugly, smoke-belching, banal, unromantic warships driven by steam and diesel drove off the billowing fleets of sail with which Britain dominated the oceans and global politics for more than a century. From an aesthetic perspective, both changes are tragedies.

From nearly every other perspective, drones, at least, are a huge improvement.

Loving the drones, even if we don't really like them

Without really discussing it as an ethical or artificial-intelligence issue, the U.S. military shifted from a force that required at least one great ape in each of whatever kind of vehicle it was using, whether it was a $200 million fighter, a too-heavily-armed Jeep, or whatever the hell this is.

And the military is going even further down the road toward a no-finger-on-the-trigger defense strategy.

The nanosatellite technology program would use old missiles to put tiny satellites in low orbit to accomplish specific tasks – long-term surveillance on a terrorist training camp, for example.

Redirected satellites of the non-classified variety were instrumental in monitoring fighting in Sudan last July, picking out details as small as the type of cargo plane being used to fly in heavy equipment for artillery and helicopter support by government troops.

Military nanosatellites would provide at least as good a view, and might also carry weapons of their own that could be fired remotely in the same way Hellfires are fired from Predators.

International treaties limit the amount to which satellites can be armed and used as weapons, but don't forbid it all together.

The increasing competition between China and the U.S. is accelerating the U.S. move toward unmanned aircraft and satellites.

The reason is the same as the reason to use drones in even the uncontested airspace of Afghanistan: It's too expensive to send a $30- or $70- or $200-million fighter and a pilot whose training and upkeep cost millions into a gauntlet of guided but unmanned missiles that cost less than the gas it would take to fly an F-35 for a month.

A DoD report titled Priorities for 21st Century Defense (PDF) sketches a range of strategic changes that would make an industrial-warfare-fighting WWII-era general blanche.

Small units, smart weapons, high mobility, partnerships with indigenous governments and military forces are the top-line strategies.

Underneath is the realization that, when the primary potential adversary of the U.S. is spending as much effort on developing long-range missiles designed to kill aircraft carriers as it is on developing aircraft carriers of its own, the era of Top Gun diplomacy is over.

Cheap isn't elegant, but it can still be deadly

The only thing that will fit in that bill is an arsenal of smaller, cheaper fighting machines that are less wasteful of human life and far simpler to develop, maintain and operate than the sexy, flashy fighters that have formed the public image and first-response option for the U.S. military for three quarters of a century.

So rather than Iceman and Maverick lighting up the skies at Mach 2, firing missiles and homoerotic comments in all directions, poky, odd-looking drones circle endlessly until they spot their targets.

It's too expensive and too logistically difficult to deal with every international crisis by sending in mission-resource packages thick with stealthy electronic countermeasure platforms, racy fighters, sleek bombers and more refueling planes than any single military action should really require.

Instead, unsexy little R/C planes, the ones real pilots call "toys," semi-autonomous robotic drones no one really likes but many are coming to fear, will destroy the target with a carefully placed missile, or cannon fire or, if the budgeting issues become really dire, by precision-bombing terrorist leaders with a big rock.

When it comes right down to it, that's a big improvement. Falling rocks don't have the sex appeal of tower-buzzing, maverick-piloted rocket chairs – let alone the driving beat of a good theme song – but to the target under the rock, the effect is just the same.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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