Technology

An AI-controlled fighter jet took the Luftwaffe leader on a historic ride. What this means for the war

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — Under a bright midday sun, an experimental orange and white F-16 fighter jet took off with a familiar roar that is a trademark of the U.S. Air Force. But the ensuing dogfight was unlike any other: This F-16 was piloted by artificial intelligence, not a human pilot. And in the front seat was Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.

AI represents one of the biggest advances in military aviation since the introduction of stealth technology in the early 1990s, and the Air Force has become aggressively involved. Although the technology is not yet fully developed, the service is planning an AI-enabled fleet of more than 1,000 unmanned combat aircraft, the first of which should be in service by 2028.

It was fitting that the dogfight took place at Edwards Air Force Base, a massive facility in the desert where Chuck Yeager broke the speed of sound and the military hatched its most secret advances in aerospace. In secret simulators and buildings with layers of protection against surveillance, a new generation of test pilots are training AI agents for use in war. Kendall traveled here to see the AI ​​fly in real time and to make a public statement of her confidence in its future role in dogfighting.

“It’s a security risk not to have it. At this point we have to have it,” Kendall said in an interview with The Associated Press after he landed. The AP, along with NBC, was granted permission to witness the secret flight on the condition that it would not be reported until after it was completed due to operational security concerns.

The AI-controlled F-16 called Vista flew Kendall at more than 550 miles per hour in lightning-fast maneuvers that applied pressure five times the force of gravity to his body. It was almost neck-and-neck with a second human-piloted F-16 as both aircraft raced to within 1,000 feet of each other, twisting and turning to force their opponent into vulnerable positions.

At the end of the hour-long flight, Kendall climbed out of the cockpit, grinning. He said he saw enough during his flight that he would trust this still-learning AI with the ability to decide whether or not to fire weapons in war.

There is a lot of resistance to this idea. Arms control experts and humanitarian groups are deeply concerned that AI could one day be able to autonomously drop bombs that kill people without further human advice, and they are calling for greater restrictions on its use.

“There are widespread and serious concerns about leaving life and death decisions to sensors and software,” the International Committee of the Red Cross warned. Autonomous weapons “are of immediate concern and require an urgent, international political response.”

Kendall said there will always be human oversight in the system when weapons are used.

The military’s transition to AI-enabled aircraft will be driven by safety, cost and strategic capabilities. If the USA and China For example, if a conflict were to occur, today’s Air Force fleet of expensive manned fighter aircraft would be vulnerable because of both sides’ advances in electronic warfare, space and air defense systems. China’s air force is on track to surpass that of the United States in numbers and is also building a fleet of flying unmanned weapons.

Future war scenarios envision swarms of American unmanned aircraft conducting a pre-attack on enemy defenses, giving the U.S. the ability to invade airspace without much risk to pilots’ lives. But change is also driven by money. The Air Force is still hobbled by production delays and cost overruns on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is estimated to cost $1.7 trillion.

Smaller and cheaper AI-controlled unmanned jets are the way forward, Kendall said.

Vista’s military operators say no other country in the world has such an AI jet, where the software first learns from millions of data points in a simulator and then tests its conclusions during actual flights. This real-world performance data is then fed back into the simulator, where the AI ​​then processes it to learn more.

China has AI, but there is no indication that it has found a way to conduct testing outside of a simulator. And just as a young officer learns tactics for the first time, some lessons can only be learned in the air, Vista test pilots said.

Until you actually fly, “everything is a guess,” said chief test pilot Bill Gray. “And the longer it takes to figure that out, the longer it takes to have useful systems in place.”

Vista flew its first AI-controlled dogfight in September 2023, and there have only been about two dozen similar flights since then. But the programs learn so quickly from each mission that some AI versions being tested under Vista are already beating human pilots in air-to-air combat.

The pilots at this base understand that in some ways they may be training their successors or shaping a future construct that will require fewer of them.

But they also say they don’t want to compete in the air against an opponent that has AI-controlled aircraft if the US doesn’t also have its own fleet.

“We have to keep running. And we have to run fast,” Kendall said.

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