Air Force’s New Unmanned Strategy Has F-35 Pilots Flying Drones

What's going on here?An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilot will one day control a small fleet of nearby drones from the cockpit while in flight — according to a new Air Force report on autonomous systems, Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley said.

The Air Force is poised to unveil a new strategy for unmanned aircraft systems next month. The report will discuss more teaming with manned aircraft such as the F-35, greater levels of automation and a wider scope of missions for UAS — such as transporting cargo.

“We see unmanned vehicles being used for a much wider variety of missions,” Endsley said in an interview with “Today they are primarily used for ISR, long duration missions where we want to collect information. In the future, they will be moving cargo and more manned-unmanned teaming where they are acting as extensions of a manned aircraft.”

The new Air Force report, called “Autonomous Horizons,” will highlight plans to improve sensors, develop new algorithms and introduce new unmanned platforms.

The Air Force currently flies MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk drones remotely using pilots to navigate from a ground control station. The new strategy calls for additional unmanned platforms and also explains that existing UAS will be increasingly engineered to perform a wider range of functions without needing human intervention – such as data analysis.

“They are going to be smarter in terms of algorithms to handle things like mission planning and collecting data and analyzing that data to take the load off of the human component of a system,” Endsley added.

Endsley said the Air Force will likely begin developing the C-17 cargo planes for unmanned missions, allowing the aircraft to reach high-risk forward locations with supplies, weapons and ammunition.

Manned-unmanned teaming wherein manned aircraft control the flight path and sensor payload of a nearby UAS while in flight is emphasized in the report as critical to the Air Forces’ future plans.

For instance, an Air Force F-35 Joint Strike Fighter might have several UAS assigned to it to perform a variety of missions from ISR to off-board weapons delivery in dangerous or hard to reach areas, Endsley explained.

“We are setting up the ability for an aircraft to take high-level command of UAS. Those unmanned aircraft will have to be capable of flying in concert in a safe manner. They will need to be capable of taking high level commands and be able to execute those effectively,” she added.

The Army has advanced manned-unmanned teaming technology in its helicopter fleet -successfully engineering Apache and Kiowa air crews to control UAS flight paths and sensor payloads from the air in the cockpit.

Senior Air Force leaders have said that the services’ new next-generation bomber program, Long Range Strike Bomber or LRS-B, will be engineered to fly manned and unmanned missions.

Also, in September of 2013, the Air Force and Boeing flew an unmanned F-16 Falcon at supersonic speeds for the first time at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. The unmanned fighter was able to launch, maneuver and return to base without a pilot.

Despite these developments, Endsley emphasized that software algorithms have not yet progressed to the point such that a remotely flown fighter jet can maneuver and react to fast-changing dynamics in a combat environment anywhere near as effectively as a manned jet.

There is often a two-second long lag time before a UAS in the air can respond to or implement directions from a remote pilot in a ground station, a circumstance which underscores the need for manned pilots when it comes to fighter jets, she said.

“One of the reasons you would go to an unmanned technology is to be able to go into more dangerous areas than you want to send humans or to fly longer duration missions. You have to weigh what the right kinds of things to fly unmanned are. Not every mission should be done unmanned. There is a long time lag with remote control. Those time lags can be very difficult for rapid response flight dynamics,” Endsley said.

As a result, Endsley explained that the Air Force is much more likely to use autonomy for ISR and cargo missions as opposed to fighter aircraft missions.

“I don’t think that fighter aircraft are a good target for that kind of autonomy,” she said.

While computer processing speed and algorithms continue to evolve at an alarming pace, it still remains difficult to engineer a machine able to instantly respond to other moving objects or emerging circumstances, Endsley argued.

“I don’t believe we will see fully autonomous systems overnight. We are going to see a slow evolution in that direction as we add autonomy to different functions in the cockpit for different functions in the analysis process or in the cyber arena. We want to be sure that we have effective human-autonomy teaming so that people are still going to be able to do their jobs – automation can increase workload if it is not easy to use,” Endsley said.

In contrast to the Air Force’s apparent position that growth in unmanned technology is not expected to replace pilots of fighter aircraft anytime soon, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus recently said the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will likely be the last manned strike fighter ever bought by the Navy.

However, Endsley and other experts in autonomous navigation technology made the point that it is very difficult to engineer a machine able to quickly react to unanticipated circumstances.

“Trying to teach a computer to have the same kinds of perceptual capabilities that people have is very difficult. They have gotten better at object recognition but understanding the context in which that object is operating could be difficult,” she said.

For example, an aircraft might succeed in being programmed to locate a specific target but might lack to ability to properly interpret the surrounding context and civilian casualties, Endsley explained.

Also, when it comes to the potential use of lethal force, an existing DoD policy directive requires that a human always be in the loop – regardless of how quickly autonomy develops.

“You can have a lot of variability in situations and it is very hard to program systems to handle every situation. People, on the other hand, are much more able to deal with novel or unforeseen circumstances,” she said.

One analyst agreed with Endsley.

“You need humans for situational awareness,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy.

— Kris Osborn can be reached at

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • LPF

    So flying a multi-millon pound fighter on your own while controlling a fleet of UAV’s hmmmm can’t see anything going wrong there :S

    • Steamboatwillie

      If they are autonomous it may be nothing more than giving them voice commands.

      • blight_

        “If they are autonomous…”

        “Hello, we are Lockheed autonomous drones division. Give us a few billion to devise a Common Drone Communication Platform so we can make the drones talk to our fighter platform. We may also need some money for F-35 upgrades too…”

        • Ming the Merciless


  • gogoody

    I enjoy the concept. its forward thinking and amazingly similar to some of the creative ideas that Sci-Fi writers have used in every plot that includes automaton aviation, to a squad or swarm of mini-insect size robots. From Star Wars to Alien invaders using robotic extensions of ‘Mother Ship’ scenarios. Using a fleet of robotic sensors-sniffers and weaponized units that can even transform(ers) into other multi-functional forms, on the go, so to speak, is definitely promising and doable. If the brain can imagine the idea…, it can create the solution.., eventually…, Be it, hardware or software. The brain-mind and hand-tool potential is infinite. Science/Technology ROCKS. Gar

  • Fatman

    Now this is what I call a force multiplier, turning a single aircraft into a squadron. Of course there a million things that can go wrong between here and war-time deployment but I’ll be optimistic about this one. After all, I’m sure the best way to make up for all the F-35’s shortcomings is surrounding it with drones that can do a better job.

  • blight_

    Lockheed is planning for the F-35 procurement death spiral. Please, pay us more for drone command capability…it’s the only way your 187 F-35 procurement will be viable.

  • blight_

    Bring back Tacit Blue.

    • Dfens

      Are you sure? That is possibly the only airplane uglier than the X-32.

      • blight_

        Most of the electronics and concepts tested in Tacit Blue ended up in JSTARS, which in turn appears to have performed quite nicely. Tacit’s contribution would be a stealth platform, allowing GMTI capability very close to the front line without fear of shootdown.

  • Wild Bill

    Note that both the Apache and Kiowa have pilot and co-pilot or weapons person. F-35 single seat. Yes, I know you can go to auto pilot them fly the drones. But the question does arise about how many plates can you keep spinning at one time. The concept has merit. This will let Lockheed propose a two seat version for another trillion.

    • Mitch S.

      I was thinking the same thing.
      The more of there capabilities they add the more they’ll miss a second crewman.
      But then there is the question of why do you need an F35 to do this?
      If the drones can go ahead into the danger zone, they can be guided by managers in a Gulfstream. The F35s would just guard against enemy aircraft.

    • Ean

      There are drones that can fly in formation automatically and can swarm to protect the manned aircraft at a touch of a button … the press of a button the drones can fly in formation or any formation that’s suited to the need of the operation/pilot at the time ie: bombing run in line front to back, or defense of the aircraft by swarming or stacked formation that gives a small radar signature all at the touch of a button,,no auto pilot needed

  • Charles

    In the rush to get drones/UAV’s into the air (and therefore, into service), data/communication security was, er, overlooked.

    Before they do something like this, those data/communication security problems must be addressed. These are typically handled better if they do that work UP FRONT, as opposed to a retrofit.

    Here’s hoping that our reliance on technology (and networking, GPS, etc.) isn’t what causes problems in the battle.

    • blight_

      Thought they were encrypting data now.
      Also, encryption induces delays, which is not so acceptable to the warfighters. It was a workaround meant to keep latency down when trying to operate a drone in Iraq from Nevada, instead of deploying ground control stations (or aerial control stations) closer to the fight to reduce the latency as much as possible.

      • LPF

        Forget latency , what the hell happens is some smart ass breaks your comms and re targets your drones to hit your own troops? It very hard to get a US airman to drop a bomb on say the USS Ford, but a drone, not so much.

        • blight_

          “some smart ass breaks your comms and re targets your drones to hit your own troops”

          Why not worry about spoofing a JTAC via man in the middle and having manned B-1B obediently drop bombs on given coordinates. Aircraft don’t always know where the friendlies are, and drop the bombs where directed. In the early days this resulted in two well-known incidents where the bombs were dropped on the spotters: once in Iraq, and once in Afghanistan.

    • MONTI

      Datalinks (uplink and downlink) are encrypted now. Additionally, taking control of the aircraft from the ground is difficult for satcoms due to the placement of the antennas on the top of the aircraft. Ground based stations may be able jam/spoof the command and/or GPS signals from space. However, the UAV may have multiple redundant systems for navigation such as INS, ground radar, and/or ground imagery. Single point of failure systems are easy to defeat, which is why nearly everything has redundancy built in.

  • RunningBear

    Having an extra dozen Aim-9/ 120 flying as a wingman doesn’t seem unreasonalble. Autonomous doesn’t equate to AI. Launch/ Recover/ Standoff are currently available algorithms/ systems. Data link via laser or radar (nearby/ line of sight) would use current comm. protocols. Passive sensor systems with notification by exception. “No star wars” here. Today, a weapons mule could simply be a well loaded out QF-16/ 18 to weapons launch on data/ direction from the F-35.

    • blight_

      Having un-stealth missile boats defeats the purpose of having a stealthy force. Might as well have un-stealthy F-15’s directing unstealthy drone missile carrying QF-16/QF-15?

  • Lance

    1st thing they drop all manned pilots.
    2. they replace solders with rombots.
    3 something goes wrong.
    4 KABOOOM!!!!

    Obama’s drone policy is going out of hand!!!!!!!

  • Dfens

    1 dead and perhaps 12 injured in the V-22 accident in Hawaii. Not horrible considering there were 22 on board. The vehicle is a total loss, no spin required by the Marines.…

  • Dr. G.

    True: Prime Contractors are looking for new funding

    But the issue remains. The large manned platforms have an anti-access/area-denial issue. Can you use UAVs to multiple the attack and ISR surface, while keeping the system a man/machine hybrid that is more agile, and good SitAware (better than purely autonomous). What sort of low cost S&T would you fund to test this (before the $$ big contracts).

    • blight_

      “Our pilot projects start at one billion dollars”

      • Dr. G.

        I work for a non-profit S&T. I bet I can craft a university R&D program at less than $500K which a live plane (ultralight?) and a few uavs and see if we can can do synchronized flight. How is that for a start? yes, there are lots more steps to this vision, but make a start.

        • blight_

          The university research establishment has been great for basic R&D. It’s just that the military has no interest in leveraging this government-subsidized asset..instead most of the R&D funds go to the prime contractors. A good number of silly “ivory tower” experiments spiral out into the real world without ponderous government cost (e.g Bell Labs, Stanford’s SRI, Stanford alumni Hewlett and Packward, Larry Page/Sergei Brin, etc etc).

    • Dfens

      That may be, but are they really going to put a $400,000 C-17 into an active fire fight zone? Not very damn likely. They might put cheaper C-130’s into places like that, but certainly not C-5’s or C-17’s.

      • guest

        I think most C-5s are probably in the boneyard by now.

        • sw614

          Some, but not all. After modifications, 52 C-5s will be kept as C-5M models

      • sw614

        They already have flown C-5s and C-17s into war zones (along with C-130s and contractor acft).

        A C-5 and a DHL MD-11 were hit by MANPADS over Baghdad, C-5 lost engine 3 and the DHL had a wing on fire. Both landed safely and were repaired

        C-17 cost is more in line with $200 million…..

  • guest

    We can’t even keep the Osprey from falling out of the sky on a regular basis. How are we going to pull this SciFi technology off?

    • blight_

      Even helicopters and jets “fall out of the sky” from time to time. While Osprey had spectacular problems in the past, the tiltrotor will continue to progress at the cost of people’s lives, just as early aircraft and helicopters took their toll on their operators and passengers.

      • Dfens

        The thing that bothers me about the V-22 is the cover up of the fundamental problems the vehicle has. They actually did a study, and then burned it after they wrote some new rules regarding how it is flown. So what does the next tilt rotor program learn from that? It doesn’t matter what problems you’re having, the Marines will cover it up? Hell, why waste the time burying this last guy the aircraft killed. Just leave him in the hole and throw some dirt over his body so it doesn’t stink up the place. That’s about the limit of concern they seem to have for their “always faithful” guys. I guess it’s just a one way slogan.

        • MONTI

          Fundamental problems hidden? Like the fixed wing guys were trying to fly it like a fixed wing and the rotor guys were flying it like rotorcraft when it is a hybrid of both? Or the transmission and gear boxes needing to be reworked? Or any other number of things are are now FIXED?

          They changed how it was flown because the instinctive responses of fixed and rotor wing pilots were actually the wrong responses depending on the situation. The fixed wing pilots were adding power in a rotor stall, which only worsens the situation; and the rotor wing pilots were reducing power in a fixed wing stall, also only worsens the situation.

          • Dfens

            Thank you mr. internet expert.

    • guest

      The thing is, in the past few years the Osprey has had a better safety record than you’d think. Hell, it’s better than the Blackhawk’s.

  • Big-D

    “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” then operate weapons systems, fly drones, maintain the strategic picture, then fight off enemy a/c and missiles, operate defensive systems, yep, the F-35 pilot and do it all and read a book at the same time

    Hello Lockhead, that WHY we have two seats.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    Lance, UAVs are going to happen notwithstanding that Obama is President. The technology that leads to smart drones isn’t going away with the end of his second term.

    I don’t expect we’ll see the F-35 teamed with UAVs anytime soon; ten years is possible. By that time the long-promised (sigh) sensor fusion of advanced radar, distributed IR cameras, and advanced RF signal reception should (hopefully) be achieved. Glitches in sharing targeting data with other F-35s will be resolved (please God). If so, then an F-35 configured for stealth might lead stealthy UAVs or even cruise missiles into an area, locate targets and transmit targeting data to the UAV that actually carries a weapons payload. If concerns about pilot workload are the problem that some posters have voiced, this might actually happen, at least in part, as a means to not only defeat anti-stealth detection, but to reduce the pilot workload.

    • Fatman

      Your Obama comment is quite telling of your political blinders. Obama has been full steam ahead of drones since day one, increasing funding and use of them more than many Republicans or Democrats wanted him to.

  • BlackOwl18E

    The F-35 was made so effective, it has to have other aircraft do it’s job.

    • blight_

      The swiss army knife is many things! This makes it unstoppable when combined with a knife, or a gun.

      • Dr. G.

        Brilliant observation, and well put!

        • Dfens

          Perhaps if the Navy’s “Chief Scientist” were smarter, they’d launch a tanking drone before every F-18 so they wouldn’t have to use up half the manned airplanes on the deck doing “buddy tanking”. Or they could bring back the F-14.

          • swflush

            Because the Tomcat carried a whopping 1.3K pounds more internal fuel than the Super Hornet - 16K vs. 14.7. That’s less than 15 minutes of flight time.

          • BlackOwl18E

            Don’t mind Dfens. He’s completely sold out to the F-35 mafia and now he’s been trying to trash talk the Super Hornet because he knows it’s the best option against the F-35. He seems to entirely forget that the Super Hornet’s internal fuel supply can easily be increased to match the F-35C with conformal fuel tanks.

          • Dfens

            Funny how the Sucker Hornet can be so perfect and yet need these almost mythical conformal tanks, isn’t it?

          • Dfens

            Ever wonder what these conformal tanks will do to the area ruling of the Sucker? Oh, right, what do you know about area ruling? They didn’t teach that in those high powered “college” classes you took, did they?

          • BlackOwl18E

            Dfens, just stop. Everytime you type you make yourself sound more like an immature child that knows nothing about aircraft or the school which I graduated from. I’m done with this thread. Boeing’s already got the design specs for the conformal tanks worked out and all they need are the funds to complete the tests. Good bye.

          • Dfens

            I know what you’re thinking, “area ruling is just for supersonic airplanes, which the F/A-18E/F is clearly not.” Hmm, does area ruling only help when you go supersonic? Perhaps if someone decides to throw more money at an airplane that we were told already fixed all the fuel sucking flaws of the earlier version we’ll find out. Of course, there’s always the question, if Boeing was lying to us the last time they totally rebuilt the F-18, are they telling the truth this time? This is the company that told us for years, “sure the X-32 will take off vertically,” and then when it came time to do it, they had to take all the avionics off and only put a shot of fuel in the tanks — hey, that’s almost like telling the truth.


    I hope the irony of the title is not lost on readers.
    I can see the announcement now:
    “Congratulations on fighting long and hard to be a fighter pilot in the F-35…you are going to fly RPAs now.”

    To those that think technology will not allow an autonomous aircraft to dogfight, there is already research and technologies available now that could be used to create such a fighter.

    There is a sense of cruel irony that the strength of the JSF’s sensors and datalinks may enable it to be the first optionally manned 5th gen fighter in the world. If it’s datalinks can control other UAVs, it makes it more likely the JSF could be controlled via datalinks.

    Lag time isn’t an issue if the fighter is working autonomously. MQ-1s have already demonstrated the capability for air-to-air engagements (albeit on the losing end) and the ability to avoid other fighters (in training and Red Flag). With the tremendous amount of sensor fusion and BVR capabilities of the F-22 and F-35, using an RPA for BVR radar missile engagements seems very plausible to me.

    • MONTI

      Link was cut short.

      Nightfall: Machine Autonomy in Air-to-Air Combat…

      • blight_

        They invoke metamaterials very early on, but you’d think such materials would present an advantage to manned aircraft as well.


        “…FQ-X, on the other hand, learns from every
        detail of the encounter with real-time machine learning. It can pass
        lessons to other UCAVs, making partnered aircraft smarter by every
        engagement.[…]In the event an air vehicle is destroyed, its last moments may be stored on a secure network via the GCS. The implication may not seem obvious at first, but contrasted to the loss of a human-inhabited fighter, the difference
        is staggering. Losing a human pilot is a tragedy, and in cold but
        factual terms that a commander must face, it means the loss of an
        enormous investment of time and money in training and operational
        experience.[…]The machine pilot, however, learns from death and in near real time
        commits adaptations to other UCAVs in the fight. Opponents may find
        that the same tactic never works twice against these systems.”

        Is probably more scary than the previous pages invoking new materials (metamaterials and carbon nanotubes).

        The author then posits a stealth aircraft capable of getting close enough to use single rounds to cripple enemy aircraft, relying on computer-controlled target recognition and leading, going as far as to suggest that stealthy autonomous drones capable of closing with enemy aircraft to use guns will obviate the advantage of missiles, and allow gutting of support aircraft such as tankers and aerial command posts.

        A reasonable test of the author’s FQ-X concept would be designing a low-observable parasite aircraft that launched from manned aircraft, and used an onboard gun in the single shot mode to cripple aircraft.

        Until machine learning systems can deal with ground clutter, they will be confined to air superiority, where the backdrop is the sky and signal/noise ratios are more favorable. It won’t be long though…

        • MONTI

          Thank you for your reply. True that the meta-materials will have advantages for both autonomous and manned aircraft I believe the author’s intent was to paint a picture of what an autonomous fighter could look like in 10-20 years and how it would be used.

          Your idea of a parasite gun-fighter is interesting and I think it has merit. It could carry a greatly reduced payload of fuel, weapons, & sensors by tapping into the host aircraft’s fuel tanks and getting sensor/targeting info via datalinks.

          I don’t foresee the ground clutter being such an issue, especially for fixed facilities by the use of GPS guided munitions. Ground Moving Target Indicator radar may be able to counter-act foilage for engagements on larger vehicles such as tanks, APCs, and semi-trucks (things with large, fairly recognizable radar images). I agree with you that an air to air situation, while seemingly complex, is much more likely a scenario for autonomous fighter aircraft.

          • blight_

            The parasite fighter if recoverable would be incredibly cost-effective viz a missile, and by being fuel limited it will address “OMG SKYNET” complaints quite nicely. It’s also a great test of target recognition systems and the like that can be plugged into manned systems today, before teleoperation work on aircraft, or the construction of specialized aerial platforms. It also fulfills the author’s concept of a small aircraft…maybe even smaller than the author thought.

            GMTI works against moving targets, but against stationary targets it would have trouble distinguishing them. I suppose algorithms that can detect changes in radar features across space (wavy grass giving way to a camoflauged tank that is a harder return) may be a solution here.

  • Rick

    Now all we need is a flying carrier to launch F-35s and then have F-35s launch Drones :D So much aerial POWER! ha ha.

  • citanon

    DARPA has a video explaining their take on the concept. I believe some iteration of this will be the future of air combat in highly contested environments:

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    Twenty years is a plausible time in which to see unmanned, networked, autonomous aircraft developed for air-to-air combat, and by that I mean “under development,” not “ready for action.” Look at the grief we have in just getting the F-35’s systems to work adequately, and for the aircraft to share data effectively. The more complex the system, the more numerous the failure modes become, and the greater the difficulty in ironing them out short of deployment (which will uncover problems that weren’t seen or fixed in advance.) Combat airframes that are both linked (to learn from each other’s death experiences) and autonomous for air/air warfare will emerge so slowly and gradually, as the sum of software packages that begin to share data, that when they do appear, we’ll be sort of startled by what we have built.

    • MONTI

      One of the bigger issues with the F-35 (and F-22) is the pilot life support systems (OBOGGS) and the crazy helmets they wear. Each helmet needs to be custom fit to each pilot. Pulling the pilot out of the cockpit would actually simplify the software problems on the F-35, which in my professional opinion will be the first optionally-manned 5th gen fighter. UAVs have already demonstrated autonomous takeoff (carrier & land), navigation, formation flight, coordinated strike, aerial refueling, and landings (carrier & land).

  • Tommy

    Drone technology is taking off and we want to make sure the country can benefit from the business and leisure opportunities that it could offer without putting flight safety at risk. Pilots and the public want the US to be a ‘safe drone zone’ and these polling results show that the public backs stricter laws on training for drone pilots and punishment for endangering aircraft

  • Tad

    “An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilot will one day control a small fleet of nearby drones from the cockpit while in flight…”

    Yay, they’ve finally found a mission this plane can actually achieve - act as an armchair for drone pilots.

  • Harold

    Just more justification for a Colonel for every F-35

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