An Air Force Without Pilots? Critics Call for an Unmanned B-21 Bomber
Policy + Politics

An Air Force Without Pilots? Critics Call for an Unmanned B-21 Bomber

The future of the Air Force’s bomber and fighter fleet may not involve human pilots.

A pair of experts argue in Defense One that the new B-21 bomber, also known as the Long Range-Strike Bomber, should be designed with an unmanned option that can be used as soon as the plane is operational.

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The next-generation aircraft is supposed to enter service, with a crew, sometime in the mid-2020s. The Pentagon has indicated it could fly without pilots on board one day, but doesn’t seem to be in hurry to make that option a reality, a delay the experts call a “grave mistake.”

Designing an unmanned version of the plane, which is currently estimated to cost more than $100 billion over its lifetime, “would increase the U.S. military’s operational flexibility, providing much-needed endurance and persistence at only a marginal increase in cost,” the analysts from the Center for a New American Security write.

They contend that a pilotless plane might fare better against new air defenses being developed by China, Russia and Iran.

“An uninhabited B-21 could have much greater refueled endurance and persistence than it could with people onboard, enabling it to conduct ultra-long missions — for example, loitering in or near enemy territory until a target presents itself,” they wrote.

“Untethered from pilot endurance limits, a B-21 could stay aloft for days with aerial refueling, and could marshal many more sorties in an extended campaign,” they added.

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The B-21 isn’t the only next-generation aircraft that could be unmanned. Many experts, including Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain (R-AZ), believe that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the last hurrah for manned attack jets.

“We think that the Navy should be looking at drones to replace manned aircraft. I believe that the F-35 is the last manned fighter aircraft," McCain told National Journal last year.

"The F-35 should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike-fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a 2015 speech.

Of course, a big concern with developing unmanned aircraft is that it could get very expensive.

Take the F-35. Years of delays have driven the program’s price tag to nearly $400 billion. Now imagine if the Pentagon had also tried to develop an unmanned option, too; costs would have likely risen even higher, perhaps substantially so.

On the other hand, the CNAS experts argue that many existing “human-inhabited aircraft already have sophisticated autopilot features, which are steadily expanding to a broader range of functions.”

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Even so, defense contractors are still trying to come up with autonomous technology that is mature and reliable.

There’s another issue as well: The Air Force is run by a bunch of people used to flying planes, and the move to unmanned aircraft could create a culture clash between fighter jocks and tech geeks.

“To their credit, service officials have acknowledged the eventual need for an uninhabited option. But their lack of urgency is consistent with a general lethargy about such systems outside of reconnaissance and counterterrorism-strike missions,” the experts note.

“For the good of the joint force, the Air Force must move beyond this reluctance.”