Category Archives: Drones/Unmanned

The Future is Unmanned: Why the Navy’s Next Generation Fighter Shouldn’t Have a Pilot

By Trevor Phillips-Levine, Dylan Phillips-Levine, and Walker D. Mills

In August 2020, USNI News reported that the Navy had “initiated work to develop its first new carrier-based fighter in almost 20 years.” While the F-35C Lightning II will still be in production for many years, the Navy needs to have another fighter ready to replace the bulk of the F/A-18E/F/G Super Hornets and Growlers by the mid-2030s. This new program will design that aircraft. While this is an important development, it will be to the Navy’s detriment if the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program yields a manned fighter.

Designing a next-generation manned aircraft will be a critical mistake. Every year remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) replace more and more manned aviation platforms, and artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming ever increasingly capable. By the mid-2030s, when the NGAD platform is expected to begin production, it will be obsolete on arrival if it is a manned platform. In order to make sure the Navy maintains a qualitative and technical edge in aviation, it needs to invest in an unmanned-capable aircraft today. Recent advances and long-term trends in automation and computing make it clear that such an investment is not only prudent but necessary to maintain capability overmatch and avoid falling behind.

Artificial Intelligence

This year, AI designed by a team from Heron Systems defeated an Air Force pilot, call sign “Banger,” 5-0 in a simulated dogfight run by DARPA. Though the dogfight was simulated and had numerous constraints, it was only the latest in a long string of AI successes in competitions against human masters and experts.

Since 1997, when IBM’s DeepBlue beat the reigning world chess champion Gary Kasparov over six games in Philadelphia, machines have been on a winning streak against humans. In 2011, IBM’s “Watson” won Jeopardy!. In 2017, DeepMind’s (Google) “AlphaGo” beat the world’s number one Go player at the complex Chinese board game. In 2019, DeepMind’s “AlphaStar” beat one of the world’s top-ranked Starcraft II players, a real-time computer strategy game, 5-0. Later that year an AI from Carnegie Mellon named “Pluribus” beat six professionals in a game of Texas Hold’em poker. On the lighter side, an AI writing algorithm nearly beat the writing team for the game Cards Against Humanity in a competition to see who could sell more card packs in a Black Friday write-off. After the contest the company’s statement read: “The writers sold 2% more packs, so their jobs will be replaced by automation later instead of right now. Happy Holidays.”

It’s a joke, but the company is right. AI is getting better and better every year and human abilities will continue to be bested by AI in increasingly complex and abstract tasks. History shows that human experts have been repeatedly surprised by AI’s rapid progress and their predictions on when AI will reach human parity in specific tasks often come true years or a decade early. We can’t make the same mistake with unmanned aviation.

Feb, 11, 1996 – Garry Kasparov, left, reigning world chess champion, plays a match against IBM’s Deep Blue, in the second of a six-game match in Philadelphia. Moving the chess pieces for IBM’s Deep Blue is Feng-hsiung Hsu, architect and principal designer of the Deep Blue chess machine. (H. Rumph, Jr./AP File)

Most of these competitive AIs use machine learning. A subset of machine learning is deep reinforcement learning which uses biologically inspired evolutionary techniques to pit a model against itself over and over. Models that that are more successful at accomplishing the specific goal – such as winning at Go or identifying pictures of tigers, continue on. It is like a giant bracket, except that the AI can compete against itself millions or even billions of times in preparation to compete against a human. Heron Systems’ AI, which defeated the human pilot, had run over four billion simulations before the contest. The creators called it “putting a baby in the cockpit.” The AI was given almost no instructions on how to fly, so even basic practices like not crashing into the ground were things it had to learn through trial and error.

This type of ‘training’ has advantages – algorithms can come up with moves that humans have never thought of, or use maneuvers humans would not choose to utilize. In the Go matches between Lee SeDol and AlphaGo, the AI made a move on turn 37, in game two, that shocked the audience and SeDol. Fan Hui, a three-time European Go champion and spectator of the match said, “It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move.” It is possible that the move had never been played before in the history of the game. In the AlphaDogfight competition, the AI favored aggressive head-on gun attacks. This tactic is considered high-risk and prohibited in training. Most pilots wouldn’t attempt it in combat. But an AI could. AI algorithms can develop and employ maneuvers that human pilots wouldn’t think of or wouldn’t attempt. They can be especially unpredictable in combat against humans because they aren’t human.

A screen capture from the AlphaDogFight challenge produced by DARPA on Thursday, August 20, 2020. (Photo via DARPA/Patrick Tucker)

An AI also offers significant advantages over humans in piloting an aircraft because it is not limited by biology. An AI can make decisions in fractions of a second and simultaneously receive input from any number of sensors. It never has to move its eyes or turn its head to get a better look. In high-speed combat where margins are measured in seconds or less, this speed matters. An AI also never gets tired – it is immune to the human factors of being a pilot. It is impervious to emotion, mental stress, and arguably the most critical inhibitor, the biological stresses of high-G maneuvers. Human pilots have a limit to their continuous high-G maneuver endurance. In the AlphaDogfight, both the AI and “Banger,” the human pilot, spent several minutes in continuous high-G maneuvers. While high G-maneuvers would be fine for an AI, real combat would likely induce loss of consciousness or G-LOC for human pilots.

Design and Mission Profiles

Aircraft, apart from remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), are designed with a human pilot in mind. It is inherent to the platform that it will have to carry a human pilot and devote space and systems to all the necessary life support functions. Many of the maximum tolerances the aircraft can withstand are bottlenecked not by the aircraft itself, but to its pilot. An unmanned aircraft do not have to worry about protecting a human pilot or carrying one. It can be designed solely for the mission.

Aviation missions are also limited to the endurance of human pilots, where there is a finite number of hours a human can remain combat effective in a cockpit. Using unmanned aircraft changes that equation so that the limit is the capabilities of the aircraft and systems itself. Like surveillance drones, AI-piloted aircraft could remain on station for much longer than human piloted aircraft and (with air-to-air refueling) possibly for days.

The future operating environment will be less and less forgiving for human pilots. Decisions will be made at computational speed which outpaces a human OODA loop. Missiles will fly at hypersonic speeds and directed energy weapons will strike targets at the speed of light. Lockheed Martin has set a goal for mounting lasers on fighter jets by 2025. Autonomous aircraft piloted by AI will have distinct advantages in the future operating environment because of the quickness of its ability to react and the indefinite sustainment of that reaction speed. The Navy designed the Phalanx system to be autonomous in the 1970s and embedded doctrine statements into the Aegis combat system because it did not believe that humans could react fast enough in the missile age threat environment. The future will be even more unforgiving with a hypersonic threat environment and decisions made at the speed of AI that will often trump those made at human speeds in combat.

Unmanned aircraft are also inherently more “risk worthy” than manned aircraft. Commanders with unmanned aircraft can take greater risks and plan more aggressive missions that would have featured an unacceptably low probability of return for manned missions. This increased flexibility will be essential in rolling back and dismantling modern air defenses and anti-access, area-denial networks.

Unmanned is Already Here

The U.S. military already flies hundreds of large RPAs like the MQ-9 Predator and thousands of smaller RPAs like the RQ-11 Raven. It uses these aircraft for reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting, and strike. The Marine Corps has flown unmanned cargo helicopters in Afghanistan and other cargo-carrying RPAs and autonomous aircraft have proliferated in the private sector. These aircraft have been displacing human pilots in the cockpit for decades with human pilots now operating from the ground. The dramatic proliferation of unmanned aircraft over the last two decades has touched every major military and conflict zone. Even terrorists and non-state actors are leveraging unmanned aircraft for both surveillance and strike.

Apart from NGAD, the Navy is going full speed ahead on unmanned and autonomous vehicles. Last year it awarded a $330 million dollar contract for a medium-sized autonomous vessel. In early 2021, the Navy plans to run a large Fleet Battle Problem exercise centered on unmanned vessels. The Navy has also begun to supplement its MH-60S squadrons with the unmanned MQ-8B. Chief among its advantages over the manned helicopter is the long on-station time. The Navy continues to invest in its unmanned MQ-4C maritime surveillance drones and has now flight-tested the unmanned MQ-25 Stingray aerial tanker. In fact, the Navy has so aggressively pursued unmanned and autonomous vehicles that Congress has tried to slow down its speed of adoption and restrict some funding.

The Air Force too has been investing in unmanned combat aircraft. The unmanned “loyal wingman” drone is already being tested and in 2019 the service released its Artificial Intelligence Strategy arguing that “AI is a capability that will underpin our ability to compete, deter and win.” The service is also moving forward with testing their “Golden Horde,” an initiative to create a lethal swarm of autonomous drones.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. (U.S. Air Force video)

The Marine Corps has also decided to bet heavily on an unmanned future. In the recently released Force Design 2030 Report, the Commandant of the Marine Corps calls for doubling the Corps’ unmanned squadrons. Marines are also designing unmanned ground vehicles that will be central to their new operating concept, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) and new, large unmanned aircraft. Department of the Navy leaders have said that they would not be surprised if as much as 50 percent of Marine Corps aviation is unmanned “relatively soon.” The Marine Corps is also investing in a new “family of systems” to meet its requirement for ship-launched drones. With so much investment in other unmanned and autonomous platforms, why is the Navy not moving forward on an unmanned NGAD?


An autonomous, next-generation combat aircraft for the Navy faces several criticisms. Some concerns are valid while others are not. Critics can rightly point out that AI is not ready yet. While this is certainly true, it likely will be ready enough by the mid-2030s when the NGAD is reaching production. 15 years ago, engineers were proud of building a computer that could beat Gary Kasparov at chess. Today, AIs have mastered ever more complex real-time games and aerial dogfighting. One can only expect AI will make a similar if not greater leap in the next 15 years. We need to be future-proofing future combat aircraft. So the question should not be, “Is AI ready now?” but, “Will AI be ready in 15 years when NGAD is entering production?”

Critics of lethal autonomy should note that it is already here. Loitering munitions are only the most recent manifestation of weapons without “a human in the loop.” The U.S. military has employed autonomous weapons ever since Phalanx was deployed on ships in the 1970s, and more recently with anti-ship missiles featuring intelligent seeker heads. The Navy is also simultaneously investing in autonomous surface vessels and unmanned helicopters, proving that there is room for lethal autonomy in naval aviation.

Some have raised concerns that autonomous aircraft can be hacked and RPAs can have their command and control links broken, jammed, or hijacked. But these concerns are no more valid with unmanned aircraft than manned aircraft. Modern 5th generation aircraft are full of computers, networked systems, and use fly-by-wire controls. A hacked F-35 will be hardly different than a hacked unmanned aircraft, except there is a human trapped aboard. In the case of RPAs, they have “lost link” protocols that can return them safely to base if they lose contact with a ground station.

Unfortunately, perhaps the largest obstacle to an unmanned NGAD is imagination. Simply put, it is difficult for Navy leaders, often pilots themselves, to imagine a computer doing a job that they have spent years mastering. They often consider it as much an art as a science. But these arguments sound eerily similar to arguments made by mounted cavalry commanders in the lead up to the Second World War. As late as 1939, Army General John K. Kerr argued that tanks could not replace horses on the battlefield. He wrote: “We must not be misled to our own detriment to assume that the untried machine can displace the proved and tried horse.” Similarly, the U.S. Navy was slow to adopt and trust search radars in the Second World War. Of their experience in Guadalcanal, historian James D. Hornfischer wrote, “…The unfamiliar power of a new technology was seldom a match for a complacent human mind bent on ignoring it.” Today we cannot make the same mistakes.


The future of aviation is unmanned aircraft – whether remotely piloted, autonomously piloted, or a combination. There is simply no reason that a human needs to be in the cockpit of a modern, let alone next-generation aircraft. AI technology is progressing rapidly and consistently ahead of estimates. If the Navy waits to integrate AI into combat aircraft until it is mature, it will put naval aviation a decade or more behind.

Platforms being designed now need to be engineered to incorporate AI and future advances. Human pilots will not be able to compete with mature AI – already pilots are losing to AI in dogfights; arguably the most complex part of their skillset. The Navy needs to design the next generation of combat aircraft for unmanned flight or it risks making naval aviation irrelevant in the future aerial fight.

Trevor Phillips-Levine is a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. He has flown the F/A-18 “Super Hornet” in support of operations New Dawn and Enduring Freedom and is currently serving as a department head in VFA-2. He can been reached on Twitter @TPLevine85.

Dylan Phillips-Levine is a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. He has flown the T-6B “Texan II” as an instructor and the MH-60R “Seahawk.” He is currently serving as an instructor in the T-34C-1 “Turbo-Mentor” as an exchange instructor pilot with the Argentine navy. He can be reached on Twitter @JooseBoludo.

Walker D. Mills is a captain in the Marines. An infantry officer, he is currently serving as an exchange instructor at the Colombian naval academy. He is an Associate Editor at CIMSEC and an MA student at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. You can find him on twitter @WDMills1992.

Featured Image: The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. (DoD)

Down to the Sea in USVs

By Norman Polmar and Scott C. Truver

“How often can you be at the christening of a robot warship?” Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work asked the crowd at the baptism of the Navy’s Sea Hunter unmanned surface warship in 2016.1 “…You’re going to look back at this day just like… when the USS Nautilus was christened, or when the USS Enterprise was commissioned,” he said. “And you are going to look back on this and say, ‘I was part of history.'”

Also part of that history, President Trump and the Navy Department are in tenuous agreement that the U.S. Navy requires 355 manned and unmanned ships, a significant increase from the current force of some 290 ships. This requirement is in part based on great power competition with China and Russia, which involves a growing renaissance in naval and maritime activities. Further, the world situation continues to witness crises, terrorism, and civil wars raging across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Yet even in “peacetime” naval ships are invaluable to represent U.S. political and economic interests in many areas of the world. Considering this global political-military environment, innovative concepts are essential to sustaining U.S. sea power.

A family of large, medium, and small USVs will take advantage of new technologies – some only dimly perceived in early 2020 – to provide increased capabilities to the Fleet with reduced construction, maintenance, and manpower. Getting there from today’s fiscal environment is critically important, and there is still much work to do to increase trust and develop CONOPs, but the potential for these unmanned vehicles to transform the future Navy is astounding.

“But I got to tell you,” Vice Adm. Richard Brown, commander of Naval Surface Forces and Naval Surface Force Pacific, warned the Surface Navy Association, “the security environment isn’t getting any more secure, it’s getting less secure, and it’s a maritime security environment hands down. And when the United States Navy’s not there, it creates a sucking vacuum and people fill it in. And it’s usually not good people.”2

Significantly, in December 2019, during deliberations on the president’s budget, the Navy proposed a 287-ship force by fiscal year 2025. “But that level,” Bloomberg News explained, “which includes the decommissioning of 12 warships to save money, would be well below the long-term 308-ship target set by the Obama administration and even farther from President Trump’s goal of 355 ships.”3

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has directed the Navy and the Department of Defense to review force level goals, and reiterated the need for a “resource-informed plan to achieve a 355-ship combined fleet, including manned and unmanned ships, by 2030.” Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly issued a 6 December 2019 memo to his staff that was “in sync” with the White House/OMB directive. He called for a plan to achieve a fleet of 355 or more ships “for greater global naval power within ten years” that includes robust levels of unmanned systems.4

U.S. shipyards could deliver the additional ships, even taking into account the accelerated retirement of outdated ships, but it would not be easy. Several yards are short of skilled workers, contributing to increasing ship construction and maintenance times. There are other constraints listed by Bloomberg: “Looming over the push to accelerate shipbuilding is an inconvenient truth outlined on December 4 by the Government Accountability Office: “The Navy continues to face persistent and substantial maintenance delays that hinder its ability to stay ready for operations and training. Since fiscal year 2014, Navy ships have spent over 33,700 more days in maintenance than expected.’”5 

Another problem with a larger fleet is the requirement for even more personnel: The Navy currently is short some 7,000 sailors. More ships will demand more sailors, a problem in the current, highly favorable U.S. economy.

“I think the number we identified matches the ownership costs that we identified,” said Rear Adm. Brian Luther, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, during congressional testimony.6 “So we grow in lead of some of the equipment because we have to train people ahead of when the ship arrives. It was a disciplined approach to ensure we didn’t procure a ship without people, [and] we didn’t procure a ship without armament. So, it’s a very balanced and disciplined approach.”7

A practical and near-term Surface Force solution­ is unmanned surface vessels (USVs). Successful testing of the DARPA and Office of Naval Research prototype Sea Hunter underscores the feasibility of USVs. During her evaluation, the 132-foot-long trimaran Sea Hunter sailed—unmanned­—from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, and back, and conducted a variety of demonstrations, showcasing the ability to host a variety of mission payloads. While important lessons were learned, there were no significant problems during her 5,000-mile voyage.8 The Sea Hunter has since transitioned to the Navy’s Surface Development Squadron ONE (SURFDEVRON-1), and the Navy is testing two other USVs as part of the Pentagon-sponsored Ghost Fleet program.9

“Because it is big and it has a lot of payload capacity, and because it also has a lot of range and endurance, it can potentially carry out a range of different missions,” Scott Littlefield, former DARPA program manager in the tactical technology office, predicted in 2016.10

Follow-on USVs are now being developed and procured by the Naval Sea Systems Command to provide increased capabilities at reduced costs. The Navy is shaping multiple competitions for successors—a “family” of small, medium, and large USVs—that look to operationalize how a more advanced USV could be employed for a broad spectrum of missions and tasks. In December, the U.S. Fleet Forces Command (FFC) issued a notice asking the service’s surface force to develop a concept of operations (CONOPS) for the large and medium USVs in development.11

“The MUSV will initially focus on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) payloads and electronic warfare (EW) systems, while the LUSV will focus on surface warfare (SUW) and strike missions,” the FFC explained. “The fundamental capabilities of these platforms may necessitate changes in how Carrier Strike Groups, Expeditionary Strike Groups and Surface Action Groups conduct operations. The CONOPS will describe the capabilities at initial operating capability (IOC), the organization, manning, training, equipping, sustaining, and the introduction and operational integration of the Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle and Large Unmanned Surface Vessel with individual afloat units as well as with Carrier Strike Groups, Expeditionary Strike Groups, and Surface Action Groups.”

“Knowing what’s going on out there is extremely important,” Admiral James Foggo, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa and NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples, remarked in December. “So, for unmanned systems, [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] is probably one of our limitations and we could use more of it. Indications and warnings are important. If you could put an unmanned system up, then there’s less of a risk, less of a threat.”12

Speaking at the U.S. Naval Institute’s defense forum in December 2019, the new Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday said that unmanned systems will be part of the Navy’s Integrated Force Structure Assessment expected in early 2020. “I know the future force has to include a mix of unmanned systems. We can’t wrap $2 billion platforms around missiles.”13

There has been programmatic success that looks to invigorate the USV family. According to Defense News, the Navy will get two large unmanned surface vessels (LUSVs) in 2020.14 The 2020 Defense appropriations bill funds the two LUSVs that the Navy requested, but prohibits funding for integrating/testing of vertical launch systems on those vessels, which is the heart of the LUSV mission. Congress also directed the service to prepare a comprehensive unmanned surface vessel plan before it charges ahead.

In that context, the White House and OMB told the Navy to develop a proposal for counting at least some of its unmanned surface vessels and underwater vehicles among its “Battle Force,” the portion of its fleet that has historically included larger, manned warships, such as aircraft carriers and destroyers, and support ships, according to The Drive.15 “This would be a major shift that would create a more realistic path for the service to meeting the ambitious congressionally mandated goal of a 355-ship Battle Force fleet and would help solidify the already growing importance of unmanned platforms in its future concepts of operation.”

The U.S. Navy is on the threshold of a new era in maritime-naval operations. “I think it’s well within the possibility that we’ll fight fleet on fleet with unmanned surface vessels deep into that fight,” Vice Adm. Brown predicted, “calling it a fundamental change to how the fleet fights akin to the introduction of carrier-based aviation to a battleship-centric fleet ahead of World War II.”

“[I]n in the United States Air Force, there are airplanes and drones,” Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work remarked. “The Navy cannot make that mistake. There have to be warships. And it doesn’t matter whether they are manned or unmanned. They will take the fight to the enemy.”

Norman Polmar is a naval analyst, historian, and author. He is a consultant to Leidos on naval and maritime issues.

Dr. Scott Truver is a Washington-based naval analyst.


1. Bob Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense Speech, Remarks at the ACTUV “Seahunter” Christening Ceremony, April 7, 2016, Portland, OR, 779197.

2. Meghan Eckstein, “VADM Brown: Future Fleet Must be Bigger, Leverage Unmanned Vessel Vessels, USNI News, 13 January 2020.

3. Tony Capaccio, “White House Presses Navy to Stick with Trump’s 355-Ship Target,” Bloomberg News, 20 December 2019.

4. David B. Lartner, “US Navy to add 46 Ships in five years, but 355 ships won’t come for a long time,” Navy Times, 12 February 2018.

5. Ibid. See also, David Sharp and Lolita Baldor, “Navy Considers Shipbuilding Cuts for Upcoming Budget,” Associated Press, 28 December 2019.

6. Lartner, “US Navy to add 46 Ships in five years, but 355 ships won’t come for a long time,” Navy Times, 12 February 2018.

7. Eckstein, “Sea Hunter Unmanned Ship Continues Autonomy Testing as NAVSEA Moves Forward with Draft RFP,” USNI News, 29 April 2019. 

8. Ibid.

9. “US Navy starts second phase of Ghost Fleet Overlord Programmed,” Naval Technology, 3 October 2019.

10. Adam Stone, ‘ACTUV on Track for Navy Success Story,” C4ISRNET, 21 December 2016.

11. Nathan Gain, “US Navy Issues Request for LUSV/MUSV CONOPS Development,” Naval News, 6 January 2020.

12. Epstein, “Foggo: Navy Needs Unmanned ISR, Tankers to Counter Russia,” USNI News, 18 December 2019.

13. Matthew Cox, “The new acting Navy secretary wants a fleet larger than the current 355-hull plan,”, 10 December 2019.

14. Lartner, “The U.S. Navy Gets Its Large Unmanned Surface Vessels In 2020 With Strings Attached,” Defense News, 21 December 2019.

15. Joseph Trevithick “White House Asks Navy To Include New Unmanned Vessels In Its Ambitious 355 Ship Fleet Plan,” The Drive, 20 December 2019.

Featured Image: The unmanned Sea Hunter vessel during testing. (Still image from DARPA video)