New B-21 Bomber Will Fly Unmanned Missions & Control Drones

The question of pilotless fighter jets has been around and extensively demonstrated for years

By Kris Osborn, President, Centre for Military Modernization

Several years ago, Air Force weapons developers made clear that the B-21 will be engineered for both manned and unmanned missions, and more recently service leaders have said the B-21 will likely control drones from the air.

An Unmanned Future?

These are important and well-known developments, as autonomy, AI-enabled dogfighting, and unmanned combat has long been in development with the Pentagon.

Years ago, former Navy Secretary Ray Maybus said it seems likely the F-35C will be the last manned fighter ever to exist. This is more than likely not the case, yet few would question the growing significance of unmanned systems for survivability, forward surveillance, and even precision weapons attacks when controlled by a human.

We are already seeing the more likely scenario, which is that drones and unmanned systems will increasingly be controlled in large numbers from the air, something that massively reduces latency, streamlines operations, and greatly widens the mission envelope.

The question of pilotless fighter jets has been around and extensively demonstrated for years. The concept of an unmanned bomber seems to make even more sense, particularly if the actual bomb dropping and lethal decision-making is still made remotely by humans. Bombers do not need to manoeuvre or dogfight like a fighter jet, so wouldn’t there be even more of a rationale to move toward unmanned bombers?

Remote drone attacks have been successful for years in Iraq and Afghanistan as they have enabled precision attacks yet retained humans in a key command and control capacity, making decisions about lethal force.

Computing, satellites, and targeting technology clearly seem to make this possible, so could one envision a scenario wherein a B-21 was to drop bombs over enemy territory while being controlled half a world away by ground-based pilots? This has been the case with drones, yet in the case of a bomber the question of technological reliability becomes even more pressing.

What if an AI-enabled sensor found a false positive or came across something not in its database? Are sensors always 100 percent reliable? Particularly when it comes to a need to integrate new intelligence or targeting specifics during a mission.

Human decision-making simply cannot be replicated in all its nuances by computers, and may not be anytime soon, so there is doubtless a strong argument to ensure that bombers at least retain the ability to be flown by human pilots.

However, should there be confirmed and clearly identified targets that have been established without question, a stealth bomber flying at high altitudes in a linear fashion to drop ordnance may well benefit from being unmanned. This would be particularly true in a high-threat environment wherein stealth aircraft might be detected by advanced enemy sensors, radar, and air defences.

Finally, there is the key question of nuclear weapons. Even if computer systems were shown to be reliable and less prone to human error, would anyone want a nuclear attack ultimately performed by a machine operating in a warzone? The gravity and potential implications of that kind of decision strike me as far too intense to be performed or even fully executed by machines – without carefully considered, deliberate, human control.

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