Editorial: Manned aircraft still vital

Air Force Times

For decades, senior military leaders and analysts have predicted the demise of manned aircraft.

The Navy, expressing that the end is on the horizon, has created a new office to oversee unmanned air systems.

Unmanned aircraft have certainly proven indispensable for more than a dozen years in reconnaissance, strike, communications relay and even transport. And the Air Force plans to increase its reliance on unmanned aircraft to remove worrying “about the limitations of the human body,” Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said.

But, he added, pilots will be needed in the cockpits of most of the service’s combat fleet for the foreseeable future. Even the next-generation stealth bomber that someday might be optionally manned will start out with pilots in its cockpit.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where unmanned aircraft flew uncontested, may have deluded some to think that will be the way of all future wars. But the recent experience should be regarded as an exception rather than a rule.

Each so-called unmanned system is either remotely operated or monitored by people and requires secure two-way radio links to be operationally effective.

As long as countries like Russia and China invest in systems to jam these links, a role remains for aircraft manned by highly trained crews who can use their intellect, judgment, experience and creativity against the enemy — even in total radio silence.

“Having the human brain as a sensor in combat is still immensely important in our view,” Welsh said.

The services should work to ensure manned and unmanned systems are seamlessly integrated.

Back to Top