Why the F-35 Might Not Be the Last Manned Fighter for the U.S. Air Force

Why the F-35 Might Not Be the Last Manned Fighter for the U.S. Air Force

The Under Secretary of the Air Force highlighted the investment in manned-unmanned teaming and Next Generation Air Dominance when the new Air Force budget was released.


Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Maybus made headlines several years ago when he said the F-35 will “almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.”

It was a bold statement about the future of aviation and unmanned systems. Maybus may have been envisioning significant progress in autonomous flight, advanced algorithms, and artificial intelligence-enabled (AI) decision-making.


Since then, there has been more exploration of manned-unmanned teaming of fighter jets and manned aircraft. Simulations and wargames showed that AI-enabled computers have prevailed in some simulations, but human cognition still cannot be fully replicated.

Despite computers being ill-equipped to imitate some human characteristics, AI-enabled decision-making can take place faster than is possible for humans. Time-sensitive decisions and functions may be performed better by automation than by humans, though. This has led many weapons developers to focus on integrating manned and unmanned systems to achieve optimal performance. AI-enabled flight controls and decision-making coupled with human problem-solving abilities could be a powerful combination.

This is why the U.S. Air Force has already flown aircraft piloted by a human, but assisted by an AI-enabled copilot. The intent is for each to complement one another to maximize the best performance of both

This is precisely the plan for the Air Force’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter jet. NGAD is a sixth-generation platform engineered to fly unmanned missions as well as participate in manned-unmanned teaming where human pilots operate with drones and unmanned systems.

“In order to generate effects required in a high-end fight, the U.S. will need to supplement current and next-generation crewed platforms with lower cost complementary and highly capable uncrewed solutions,” Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones said on Monday. “The operational imperative focused on the Next Generation Air Dominance or NGAD. The family of systems will be designed with the ability to collaborate with uncrewed and/or autonomous platforms to increase operational effectiveness.”

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.