HomeBusinessA.I. Brings the Robot Wingman to Aerial Combat

A.I. Brings the Robot Wingman to Aerial Combat

It is powered into flight by a rocket engine. It can fly a distance equal to the width of China. It has a stealthy design and is capable of carrying missiles that can hit enemy targets far beyond its visual range.

But what really distinguishes the Air Force’s pilotless XQ-58A Valkyrie experimental aircraft is that it is run by artificial intelligence, putting it at the forefront of efforts by the U.S. military to harness the capacities of an emerging technology whose vast potential benefits are tempered by deep concerns about how much autonomy to grant to a lethal weapon.

Essentially a next-generation drone, the Valkyrie is a prototype for what the Air Force hopes can become a potent supplement to its fleet of traditional fighter jets, giving human pilots a swarm of highly capable robot wingmen to deploy in battle. Its mission is to marry artificial intelligence and its sensors to identify and evaluate enemy threats and then, after getting human sign-off, to move in for the kill.

On a recent day at Eglin Air Force Base on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Maj. Ross Elder, 34, a test pilot from West Virginia, was preparing for an exercise in which he would fly his F-15 fighter alongside the Valkyrie.

“It’s a very strange feeling,” Major Elder said, as other members of the Air Force team prepared to test the engine on the Valkyrie. “I’m flying off the wing of something that’s making its own decisions. And it’s not a human brain.”

The Valkyrie program provides a glimpse into how the U.S. weapons business, military culture, combat tactics and competition with rival nations are being reshaped in possibly far-reaching ways by rapid advances in technology.

The emergence of artificial intelligence is helping to spawn a new generation of Pentagon contractors who are seeking to undercut, or at least disrupt, the longstanding primacy of the handful of giant firms who supply the armed forces with planes, missiles, tanks and ships.

The possibility of building fleets of smart but relatively inexpensive weapons that could be deployed in large numbers is allowing Pentagon officials to think in new ways about taking on enemy forces.

It also is forcing them to confront questions about what role humans should play in conflicts waged with software that is written to kill, a question that is especially fraught for the United States given its record of errant strikes by conventional drones that inflict civilian casualties.

And gaining and maintaining an edge in artificial intelligence is one element of an increasingly open race with China for technological superiority in national security.

That is where the new generation of A.I. drones, known as collaborative combat aircraft, will come in. The Air Force is planning to build 1,000 to 2,000 of them for as little as $3 million apiece, or a fraction of the cost of an advanced fighter, which is why some at the Air Force call the program “affordable mass.”

There will be a range of specialized types of these robot aircraft. Some will focus on surveillance or resupply missions, others will fly in attack swarms and still others will serve as a “loyal wingman” to a human pilot.

The drones, for example, could fly in front of piloted combat aircraft, doing early, high-risk surveillance. They could also play a major role in disabling enemy air defenses, taking risks to knock out land-based missile targets that would be considered too dangerous for a human-piloted plane.

The A.I. — a more sophisticated version of the type of programming now best known for powering chat bots — would assemble and evaluate information from its sensors as it approaches enemy forces to identify other threats and high-value targets, asking the human pilot for authorization before launching any attack with its bombs or missiles.

The cheapest ones will be considered expendable, meaning they likely will only have one mission. The more sophisticated of these robot aircraft might cost as much as $25 million, according to an estimate by the House of Representatives, still far less than a piloted fighter jet.

“Is it a perfect answer? It is never a perfect answer when you look into the future,” said Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, who until this summer was in charge of setting requirements for the air combat program, as the Air Force works to incorporate A.I. into its fighter jets and drones.

“But you can present potential adversaries with dilemmas — and one of those dilemmas is mass,” General Jobe said in an interview at the Pentagon, referring to the deployment of large numbers of drones against enemy forces. “You can bring mass to the battle space with potentially fewer people.”

The effort represents the beginning of a seismic shift in the way the Air Force buys some of its most important tools. After decades in which the Pentagon has focused on buying hardware built by traditional contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the emphasis is shifting to software that can enhance the capabilities of weapons systems, creating an opening for newer technology firms to grab pieces of the Pentagon’s vast procurement budget.

“Machines are actually drawing on the data and then creating their own outcomes,” said Brig. Gen. Dale White, the Pentagon official who has been in charge of the new acquisition program.

The Air Force realizes it must also confront deep concerns about military use of artificial intelligence, whether fear that the technology might turn against its human creators (like Skynet in the “Terminator” film series) or more immediate misgivings about allowing algorithms to guide the use of lethal force.

“You’re stepping over a moral line by outsourcing killing to machines — by allowing computer sensors rather than humans to take human life,” said Mary Wareham, the advocacy director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, which is pushing for international limits on so-called lethally autonomous weapons.

A recently revised Pentagon policy on the use of artificial intelligence in weapons systems allows for the autonomous use of lethal force — but any particular plan to build or deploy such a weapon must first be reviewed and approved by a special military panel.

Asked if Air Force drones might eventually be able to conduct lethal strikes like this without explicit human sign-off on each attack, a Pentagon spokeswoman said in a statement to The New York Times that the question was too hypothetical to answer.

Any autonomous Air Force drone, the statement said, would have to be “designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.”

Air Force officials said they fully understand that machines are not intelligent in the same way humans are. A.I. technology can also make mistakes — as has happened repeatedly in recent years with driverless cars — and machines have no built-in moral compass. The officials said they were considering those factors while building the system.

“It is an awesome responsibility,” said Col. Tucker Hamilton, the Air Force chief of A.I. Test and Operations, who also helps oversee the flight-test crews at Eglin Air Force Base, noting that “dystopian storytelling and pop culture has created a kind of frenzy” around artificial intelligence.

“We just need to get there methodically, deliberately, ethically — in baby steps,” he said.

The Pentagon Back Flip

The long, wood-paneled corridor in the Pentagon where the Air Force top brass have their offices is lined with portraits of a century’s worth of leaders, mixed with images of the flying machines that have given the United States global dominance in the air since World War II.

A common theme emerges from the images: the iconic role of the pilot.

Humans will continue to play a central role in the new vision for the Air Force, top Pentagon officials said, but they will increasingly be teamed with software engineers and machine learning experts, who will be constantly refining algorithms governing the operation of the robot wingmen that will fly alongside them.

Almost every aspect of Air Force operations will have to be revised to embrace this shift. It’s a task that through this summer had been largely been entrusted to Generals White and Jobe, whose partnership Air Force officers nicknamed the Dale and Frag Show (General Jobe’s call sign as a pilot is Frag).

The Pentagon, through its research divisions like DARPA and the Air Force Research Laboratory, has already spent several years building prototypes like the Valkyrie and the software that runs it. But the experiment is now graduating to a so-called program of record, meaning if Congress approves, substantial taxpayer…