The U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper remains the frontline armed drone. Designed to be a follow-up to the MQ-1 Predator, the Reaper can carry a great deal of ordnance, which allows it to fulfill the "hunter" component of a hunter-killer drone. Reapers can carry double the amount of Hellfire missiles that the Predator could carry, while the MQ-9 can also carry up to 500 pounds bombs.
This has made it an ideal platform for quite literally unleashing hell on the enemy, but the MQ-9 is also notable for providing an eye in the sky, which is why the U.S. Navy has shown interest in the Reaper.
There is no denying that the United States has some of the deadliest drones on the planet.
Forbes reported that the Air Force wants a new hunter-drone that could replace its current fleet of 306 propeller-driven MQ-9 Reapers – and these could include a version of the service's "Skyborg" artificial intelligence (AI). This would allow the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to do its flying and fighting on its own by learning through experience.
The fact that this involves literally an autonomous weapons system that is built around a system that is similar in name to The Terminator movies' "SkyNet" shouldn't at all give anyone pause!
Earlier this month the Air Force released a Request For Information (RFI) that was sent out to the aerospace industry. It called for a next-generation unmanned intelligence-strike platform, which could be taking to the skies and combat-ready in 2031. This Next Generation UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) would handle intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) as well as strike capabilities.
The RFI has called for the platform to utilize a slew of tech "buzzwords" including autonomy, AI, machine learning, digital engineering, open mission systems (OMS) and attritable technology. While autonomy, AI and even machine learning are essentially the same basic thing – Business Insider helped describe OMS, which are those platforms that are designed to be modular and easily upgraded over the system's lifetime; and digital engineering is technology that allows developers to simulate the parts via a computer model before creating an actual version.
The Air Force is seeking a cost-effective drone – one that could be "cheap enough" to be considered "attritable" or otherwise expendable.
If such efforts to create a robotic drone prove successful, it is likely it could be "supersized" of sorts to combat aircraft.
Air Force Magazine reported that Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, head of the Pentagon's Joint Artificial Center has said that the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) team has been pushing the boundaries of what the military can build when it comes to unmanned aircraft systems. The team had launched its efforts to develop an AI-driven fighter jet in 2018.
However, those efforts are not aimed at replacing the pilot in the cockpit with a robotic system – but rather to augment the pilot's ability with a system that could, as Shanahan put it, "have literally missions of hours of training time…" and such as "system could help make decisions on a timeline that humans can't even begin to think about."
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.