Another upside is cost. UAVs are pricey, but less so than manned planes. UAVs also show their worth in counter-insurgency warfare. They can loiter over sensitive areas, such as Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, monitoring terrorist and guerrilla infiltration routes. Armed UAVs can immediately engage the infiltrators. Armed Predators have successfully attacked senior al-Qaida operatives in what the terrorists believed were safe havens.
There are senior aviators who suffer from cockpit nostalgia and a decade ago pooh-poohed unmanned platforms. Those fellows, however, are increasingly marginal. Current UAVs are simply too useful, and the next-generation will be extraordinarily agile and lethal.
But will UAVs completely replace piloted aircraft? I don't see that, not for quite some time. The Air Force's smart guys talk about a "mix" of piloted high-performance aircraft, like the F-22, in a strike or operational "package" with UAVs. Commercial aircraft use autopilots to fly from point to point, but do passengers want to completely remove pilots from commercial cockpits? Commercial flying isn't combat, but immediate human presence and judgment -- while significantly augmentable -- are not quite fully replaceable
UAVs also present the United States with potential strategic problems. Since the end of World War II American military planners -- and for that matter, most of the planners in the rest of the world -- have assumed the United States would quickly obtain air superiority. We not only had the technology, we had an edge in pilot quality.
Robotic fighter aircraft cropping up in the air fleets of adversaries could change that assumption. Software for robotic aircraft is improving. The United States must get prepared to face a robot "fighter ace" -- one that will challenge American air dominance.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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