back to article F-16 fighter converted to drone

Kids aspiring to become fighter pilots just had their hopes and dreams crushed that little bit more, after Boeing successfully converted an F-16 Fighting Falcon into a pilot-less aircraft. The newly-designated QF-16 had been retired by the US Air Force before Boeing acquired it, restored it airworthy condition and rigged it up …

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Terminator

And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

This may well be the wave of the future for combat aircraft. Fighters have now reached the point where they can turn tightly enough to generate very high levels of G for long periods of time. Pilots, subject to blacking out even with G-suits, can no longer match the aircraft's performance.

Cue the VR-helmets for the ground-side pilot and hope to heaven that your data-link is secure enough and strong enough to keep you in touch. If it isn't, then Iran may get a few new aircraft landing at their airports...

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Anonymous Coward

Drone pilots can now get bravery awards!

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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

"Fighters have now reached the point where they can turn tightly enough to generate very high levels of G for long periods of time. Pilots, subject to blacking out even with G-suits, can no longer match the aircraft's performance."

G suits are good, and have held back the point where humans are holding back the fighter planes performance, but it would appear we are reaching that point now. So how about submersing the pilot in a saline solution, in a tank in the cockpit. Would that work?

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WTF?

Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

Hyperbole much? This is still a human driving the machine, he's just not sitting on top of it any more.

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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken..

Hyperbole? In the event of direct command/control signal loss, degredation or deliberate interference some elements such as basic flight controls & navigation will have to be capable of autonomous operation till the human can be re-inserted back into the loop. From a military viewpoint it would also make sense that the aircraft be able to defend itself during this vulnerable period. It's not a great leap from that to letting it fly the complete mission by itself.

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"target practise"

An organisation renting them out as targets? Or did you mean target practice?

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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

Why involve a pilot at all?

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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

We Brit's created Skynet decades ago.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skynet_%28satellite%29

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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

That's an awful lot of extra weight there - pilot plus fluid plus tank. It might work (although I suspect the whole plane would need a redesign to accomodate the bulk) but the performance loss would be an issue. Consider, too, the problems with ejecting.

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Joke

Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

"Consider, too, the problems with ejecting."

I would assume that's what the cork in the floor is for.

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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

Ghost X-9 anybody?

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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

major drawback to that idea is weight. That much saline isn't exactly light and the added weight will affect performance, moderately at the very least. Then, of course, there is the radical redesign of existing cockpits - frightfully expensive in a time of tightening budgets.

While I do not doubt your idea COULD/WOULD work, I seriously doubt it WILL be used due to expense. Until "broken" to one degree or another, RPVs and autonomous aircraft are the future.

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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken..

In the event of direct command/control signal loss, degredation or deliberate interference some elements such as basic flight controls & navigation will have to be capable of autonomous operation till the human can be re-inserted back into the loop. From a military viewpoint it would also make sense that the aircraft be able to defend itself during this vulnerable period. It's not a great leap from that to letting it fly the complete mission by itself.

From a military viewpoint, sure. From a computer science viewpoint, it might as well be trying to fly to the moon in a Skoda Octavia. "Not crashing" simply means maintaining the horizon, which is a task given to 1st year computer science students studying computer vision (I still have the code if you are interested). "Autonomously identify and engage enemy combatants" is an altogether different board game.

tl;dr - Its only "not a great leap" if you are completely devoid of engineering experience and think like a an army General.

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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

Why a saline solution? You weren't thinking of pumping it INTO the pilot's veins, were you? And it would be pretty corrosive when the inevitable leaks happen...

A more sensible fluid would be a low-viscosity oil

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Black Helicopters

Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

"Ghost X-9"

But where would we find a pilot?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24107790

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Anonymous Coward

Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

I feel it can lead to more than that.

"This may well be the wave of the future for combat aircraft"

IMHO this may be the 'first step' to what all too many politicos and governments want: ubiquitous warfare.

One of the major reasons war is not consistently played out upon the world stage is troop casualties, the fact that your own people will die while they kill your enemies. The social & political repercussions of the possible deaths on their own side cause the $*!% old men in charge to take a breath before they say "Attack!"

Robotic weapons of mass destruction? The selfish old men will then get to say "None of our [boys] gets hurt so let's hit them early, where it counts!" Eternal, unending war because all the deaths are by glorious, insulated remote control.

Science fiction writers - hell, even our own generals - have warned us about the anonymization of the violence of warfare for centuries. From Orwell to Star Trek (A Taste of Armageddon) to General Robert E. Lee ("It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it") - once you remove the "terrible" from war, you will find that human beings will use it even more frequently to suit their agendas.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

Three observations

1. G Suit no good against red out (negative G manuvers)

2. Switch on the jammers, and smart drone becomes dumb bot.

3. The US Mil has a history of failing to switch on the security (e.g, Taliban watching US drone feed, as discovered when US patrol realised the picture on their feed looked just the same as the one on the computer they just captured, for some reason the bad guys managed to get out ahead of the patrol!)

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Re: Would that work?

No it wouldn't work, even if it didn't weigh so much - the problem is acceleration, buoyancy won't fix that. Variable anti-grav would work a treat ...

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How about... Breathable Liqiuds?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breathable_liquid

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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

Perhaps just a side effect of the design...

But I saw a documentary a few years back on the F22, and one of the pilots mentioned how the F22 will actively prevent a pilot from pulling too many Gs -- not to protect the pilot -- but to protect the long term health of the air frame itself.

I suppose perhaps without a pilot they could of devoted more resources to an even more sturdy build so it could do more.. or make a much cheaper plane so that it doesn't matter if the airframe degrades quicker since it would be more disposable..

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JLV
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Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

good question. I think not.

First, that would be a big and hefty saline tank, adding substantial weight. Second, you can probably kiss a good deal of instrument/control tactile sensitivity if the pilot is in a wetsuit and the instruments need to be waterproof.

(educated guess below. programmer, not aeronautical eng)

Most important though - the acceleration forces would remain substantially the same. If you are pulling 10g downward in a dry cockpit, you'd still be @ 10g sitting in a tank doing the same maneuver. It's not about keeping your skin/body from crushing into a chair that's a problem - the tank might help there - it's about managing your blood flow. So what's sitting outside your skin doesn't matter much, your blood is still pulled around @ 10g. A pressure suit applies pressure to constrain the blood flow, different thing.

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Angel

Re: And the first step towards Skynet has been taken...

Hyperbole? Don't worry too much about (supposed to be) humourous titles.

Immersing the pilot in a tank of liquid to improve G-performance? Sounds good, in theory.

Anyone remember the Gerry Anderson show UFO? The aliens' suits were filled with a liquid and presumably their ships were too. It wasn't stated in the show, I think, but they'd handle G-loads better.

More seriously, the weight of the liquid (and the tank) would be prohibitive, too much aircraft performance would be lost. Even worse, most pilots are some way ahead of the center of gravity so a big tank full of liquid so far forward would really bugger up the aircraft's balance.

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By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

There will be no reason for human fighter pilots in a decade or so. But there will still be human fighter pilots, because some of today's fighter pilots will eventually be generals sitting in the Pentagon deciding where to spend all the billions congress gives them to waste invest in our defense.

They will twist logic however much it has to be twisted to claim that humans are still needed behind the controls of fighters, despite the fact that they'll cost far more because they'll need to protect fragile humans. As a result we won't have very many of them.

I suspect a lot of flyboys will be in denial about the obsolescence of manned fighters until a real war is fought by manned fighters against an enemy who overwhelms the super high tech manned stealth fighters with hordes of small disposable drones that don't waste money on unnecessary features like stealth or arms but can sustain many more Gs than a manned fighter and simply impact their targets.

Sort of like how many cavalry officers were in denial about how tanks made cavalry obsolete until Rommel showed them the error of their ways.

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Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

I have a pilots licence, it is obvious that you do not, so believe me when I say human interaction is still necessary in the sky rather than from an armchair.

Situational awareness can never be inputted in code.

Plonker.

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Gimp

Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

LarsG, you appear to be forgetting the most important factor - Pilots in the sky can only lose once........

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Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

Not just that, but a catastrophic loss of remote control could possibly end up with the aircraft making a dead-reckoning (assuming GPS has been jammed) return to safety, all by itself. It only needs to be so accurate to get back to a friendly area, then either command can be restored, or the aircraft can self destruct upon depletion of fuel. Or, just maybe, the aircraft can crashland somewhere flat and open and at least be partly salvageable.

It's not like a few people with some garden shed engineering can't build a small-scale craft that can return to base under autonomous control. The current SPB project seems to be shaping up in exactly that direction.

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Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

I have a pilots licence,

But do you fly aircraft where most of your situational awareness comes from high-tech equipment all around you, and the view out the windscreen counts for very little? In that scenario having the pilot remote makes a lot less difference.

The biggest problem I've heard of in that situation is that the remote pilots get "seasick" because their body's sensory input doesn't match what they're seeing via the FR display. Presumably training can help there, at least for some people.

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Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

> Situational awareness can never be inputted in code.

...you're already implementing the logic routines in neurons, there's no inherent barrier to doing it in silicon.

Never is a long time.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

I think you mean Erich von Manstein, not Rommel....

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Anonymous Coward

Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

There's another very important thing, fighters abilities are greatly limited by the human being inside the cockpit, a remote controlled machine wouldn't have all the nasty problems with G-Force and Air mixing that humans need. Allowing for less weight waste and far greater manoeuvrability. Though it is all down to how good the sensors are and how quickly and reliably that information can get to a control agent.

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LDS
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Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

SA comes from high-end equipment as long as your target is out of sight. When it comes close to you, all your high-tech equipment becomes almost useless - and you would need a fairly complex 360° 3D system to remote fight in such a situation. Same when engagement rules ask you to identify your target visually.

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Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

And that's a good incentive to fight better.

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@AC

"I think you mean Erich von Manstein, not Rommel...."

To quote Gen. Buck Turgidson: "A kraut by any other name...."

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@Lars

What you say is exactly what the flyboy generals will say "what we pilots do can never be done by machines". And you'll be just as wrong.

Situational awareness will be meaningless when two dozen small drones capable of pulling more Gs than you are on you like bees on a Japanese hornet. You won't have nearly enough missiles to take them all out, you won't be able to hit something so small and moving so erratically with your guns, and even if you do take out a couple all it will take is one of them coming from where you aren't looking to ram you and you're done.

Your only choice will be to go supersonic and leave them behind (along with your mission) Don't worry, more will find you eventually, since they'll be so cheap to build given their size and lack of stealth, weapons and supercruise.

Look at how much modern fighter jets cost, the US had to figure out how to build several thousand F35s by selling them to other countries to try to drive the price per unit below $100 million per plane. They have to make them cost a ridiculous amount because the US isn't willing to endure any losses of pilots. Not like WW II when losses were acceptable so planes didn't have to use the best possible technology in every way to try to guarantee pilot survival. Imagine if they were building fighters by the tens of thousands like during WW II, so not only are they much cheaper for the above reasons, they are also getting much better economies of scale. They wouldn't care if a few percent malfunctioned and had to do a controlled crash in a field. They're like cruise missiles, utterly disposable.

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Re: @Lars

You're totally wrong. US WWII planes were designed with as much as possible pilot survivability in mind - employing the best technology available then.

That's why the were heavier than the Zero which was designed to be as maneuverable as the airframe allowed without any protection for the pilot. What the Japanese didn't understand than was a skilled pilot is a valuable asset. Because it takes a lot of time (and money) to train him, and a skilled pilot is able to down much more enemy planes than an unskilled one - and can train new pilots effectively.

Eventually, which planes - and pilots - won the war? The ones on heavier, more protected planes. And Japan air force became less and less effective once it lacked skilled pilots - and had not enough time to train new ones.

In every war you know you will have losses - just good commanders knows if best men have a chance to survive, they can fight the next battle - and better.

Number alone is not sufficient to win a battle - there are many examples where skilled combatants won over sheer number.

The F-35s (and F-22 and B-2) are expensive not because they need to bring the pilot back, they're expensive because today stealthness is thought needed to penetrate actual air defenses, and it doesn't really care if the airplane is manned or not, it has to get near enough to the target to hit it. A lot of cheap unmanned planes have no way to reach any target, they will be easily downed by any capable opponent. If they're cheap enough, old AA cannons wil be enough to destroy them in droves.

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Re: @Lars

Bombers need stealth to avoid AA cannons and reach a target, fighters don't. They have it to protect the pilot (and many fighters are seen as sometimes doing bomber type roles since they're faster)

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Re: @Lars

Stealth fighter are stealth because they need to clear the airspace to let bombers hit their targets without being downed by enemy fighters. What do you think "air superiority" role means?

When a bomber attacks a well protected target, it will encounter a) fighers b) missiles c) cannons. Escorting fighters must destroy a) while avoiding b) and c). That's why they need to be stealth as well - and stealthiness also makes harder for enemy radars to get a lock on it.

And of course, if a non-stealth fighter escorts a stealth bomber, the stelthiness of the bomber becomes useless because the fighter will advertise the bomber presence...

Drones are becoming stealth as well because a downed drone is pretty useless.... even if it has no pilot to protect.

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Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

I think you mean Heinz Guderian, not Erich von Manstein....

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Re: @Lars

"Bombers need stealth to avoid AA cannons and reach a target, fighters don't."

Modern planes are no longer pure bombers or fighters - they are multirole combat aircraft and as such must be designed to be compatible both with air-to-air and ground attack functions.

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Re: By the time kids today are old enough to be pilots

"SA comes from high-end equipment as long as your target is out of sight. When it comes close to you, all your high-tech equipment becomes almost useless - and you would need a fairly complex 360° 3D system to remote fight in such a situation. Same when engagement rules ask you to identify your target visually."

That doesn't seem like something that would be a problem at all with existing technology. A "360° 3D system" is not something that would be prohibitively complex. It would simply involve taking multiple camera inputs and piecing them together into a single surround image. With multiple sensor domes on top of and below the aircraft, you could obtain a view in literally any direction from a virtual cockpit, unrestricted by the aircraft's body. This same unrestricted surround view could be transmitted in multiple vision modes as well, such as near-infrared and thermal imaging to see clearly in situations that a pilot's "eagle eye" would be completely blind to.

On the controller's end, the remote pilot could view the surround image using a high-resolution head-mounted stereoscopic display, with motion tracking to enable them to look in any direction just by turning their head. Resolution should not be a problem with such a system, and if the camera feeds provide a higher resolution than the display, they would have the ability to seamlessly zoom their view, effectively giving them telescopic vision. The pilot would likewise have the ability to view a zoomed out, ultra-wide field view as well. There could additionally be one or more co-pilots viewing the same feed and able to look in any direction independently at will, assigning targets and so on. Each could have their view overlayed with a custom HUD providing them with relevant info.

As for transmission lag, computer-assisted aiming and flight assists could largely make up for it, allowing the aircraft to automatically start reacting to a situation instantaneously. Of course, if the plane is doing something that it shouldn't, the remote pilot will still be able to correct it a fraction of a second later. Autonomous control of vehicles has come a long way in recent years, and it stands to reason that it should continue improving in the years to come. Even if an enemy managed to completely jam a remote-controlled aircraft's transmissions to its pilot, we're getting to the point where that aircraft could still fend for itself, or at least make a quick escape.

Of course, this would mainly apply to aircraft purpose-built with remote and autonomous piloting in mind, although systems could be experimented with on existing aircraft as well. I have little doubt that such systems are already being worked on and experimented with for eventual wide-scale use, and that we'll see those systems in place in the coming decades.

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humans out the loop

the plane is probably better than when it was manned

the plane had to be limited as to what it could do because the human could not survive the G forces,

try holding a minimum radius turn, the pilot becomes a passenger,

the remote pilot is still drinking his coffee and working out how to kill you

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You never flew a fighter, did you?

Sure, a drone can sustain higher Gs - as long as the airframe doesn't break and the engines can still breath enough air to avoid a compressor stall - not only pilots have physical limits. But even today the situational awareness a pilot in the cockpit has is unmatched by current technology. Until the remote control station has a 360° 3D "display" without the lag of satellite links (try to fire against a fast moving target a tenth of second later...), and other "inputs" the pilot has, drones will be onfined to recoinessance and attack of static or slow moving targets.

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Re: You never flew a fighter, did you?

True enough but my guess would be certain sequences and modes would have to be performed fully autonomous. Especially the locking on targets and firing, dodging and so on. It will take a lot of AI to win still with all other things remaining equal but new frame designs and high-G manoeuvres might as some point indeed level the playing field if not obliterate it.

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Re: You never flew a fighter, did you?

"drones will be confined to reconnaissance and attack of static or slow moving targets"

When was the last time the USAF (or any other airforce) needed to do anything else?

Anyway, air-to-air missiles are basically one use drones now, the human is only in the loop to pull the trigger.

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Re: You never flew a fighter, did you?

>But even today the situational awareness a pilot in the cockpit has is unmatched by current technology.

It's not 1939 any more, and we've barely seen the start of drone development.

If you have force of numbers, you don't need situational awareness. If you're putting 10 or 100 cheap highly mobile airframes with a networked AI against one human-controlled combat fighter, the fighter is the whale in a pool full of sharks, and the cavalry officer charging against a tank brigade.

Only one drone needs to slam into a fighter for it to be game-over.

If you're thinking this is about dogfights and missiles mano a mano you're not understanding what the technology is capable of.

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Re: You never flew a fighter, did you?

Sure, a drone can sustain higher Gs - as long as the airframe doesn't break and the engines can still breath enough air to avoid a compressor stall - not only pilots have physical limits.

The bit you're missing is that the physical limits of the aircraft can be improved beyond the current limits. Previous improvements have been deemed pointless because the pilot would have already blacked out long before you reached these physical limits.

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Re: You never flew a fighter, did you?

"Until the remote control station has a 360° 3D "display" without the lag of satellite links (try to fire against a fast moving target a tenth of second later...), and other "inputs" "

^^^^^^

this is all just a matter of time.

ever play an FPS online ?

there have been people with high pings anticipating movement to compensate for their network lags ever since online gaming started.

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LDS
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Re: You never flew a fighter, did you?

LOL! And do you believe on-line gaming is comparable to a real dogfighting? Does your target move at hundreds of km/h? Grow up, real world is a bit different....

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Re: You never flew a fighter, did you?

Sure, as US fighters in Vietnam didn't need guns, it was the beginning of the missile era. What happened? They needed to retrofit guns to avoid huge losses...

Actual pilots can still dodge AI controlled missiles - why? Maybe one day AI will become enough sophisticated to be able to fight by themselves - and make all the decisions an actual pilot does.

Relying only on technology is the best way to lose a war. That's why the Israeli Air Force obtained far better results even with inferior technology - it always understood how important the human factor is. While USAF often found itself in trouble because it thought its technology - often untested in a real scenario - was so superior it didn't need anything else.

And BTW: why tanks are still manned when it would be far easier to remote control them than an airplane?

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LDS
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Re: You never flew a fighter, did you?

Not so much. None of the actual drones is an high-perfomance aircraft. The Mach 3 aircrafts were already so complex to build and so expensive not because of the pilot(s), but for the airframe and engines stress - mechanical and thermical. Most composites actually used can't stand high temperatures for long, Actual engines can't work if the intake air becomes supersonic. That's physics, and there's little to do. You can't have Star Wars fighters.... Lucas didn't care about physics.

Up to the point that current aircraft are often less performant of their precedessor to become less expensive to build - compare an F-18E or an F-35C to an F-14D and you see all the differences.

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