US Air Force secretary so confident in AI-controlled F-16s that he will fly in one • The Register

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The U.S. Air Force is rapidly expanding its plans to automate some of its fleet, and the service’s civilian boss says he plans to fly one of the robo-planes this northern spring.

Last week the USAF delivered three F-16 fighters to Eglin Air Force Base for conversion to full AI control as part of the Viper Experimental and Next-Gen Operations Model (VENOM) autonomous testbed program.

Speaking to a U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee defense hearing on Tuesday, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall reported that the program is making strong progress and that they will be test non-pilots in one of the aircraft — with some backup, of course.

“I’m going to ride in an autonomously flying F-16 later this year,” Kendall testified. “I’ll have a pilot with me who will just watch, as I am, as the autonomous technology works, and hopefully neither he nor I will be needed to fly the plane.”

Kendall praised the progress of the Air Force’s automation program, of which VENOM is a part. The military’s research arm, DARPA, has worked on it for more than five years, and in 2023, after the Air Force demonstrates that the F-16 can fly by software alone, it is about to build a fleet of advanced drones. Asking for 6 billion dollars.

Clearly, the next conflict involving the US will not see the autonomous F-16 in action. These are purely a testbed for developing software for the next generation of drones. And the software is already pretty good — four years ago an AI model beat Air Force pilots 5-0 in an F-16 flight simulator. Real-life Mavericks (yes, we know that’s Navy) may be headed for extinction, but not today.

“It’s important to understand the ‘human-on-the-loop’ aspect of this type of testing, meaning that a pilot will be involved in real-time autonomy and maintain the ability to start and stop specific algorithms,” Lt. Col. explained. Joe Gagnon, commander of the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron. “There will never be a time when the VENOM aircraft will completely ‘fly itself’ without the human component.”

Relax pilots, you still have work to do – click to enlarge. Source: USAF/David Shelikoff

The end goal is what the Air Force calls a “cooperative fighter aircraft” — aka your drone friend that’s fun to fly with. The USAF envisions a future in which fighters and bombers can fly with AI-powered sentry drones that can handle adversaries, relay communications and intercept targets.

It’s an idea whose time has come – at least in military minds. Britain had its own Project Mosquito drone until the project was canceled and replaced by a cheaper solution, and Australia is testing Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghostbusters for use in the skies below. China is developing a “loyal wingman” drone that looks advanced, and has Kendall worried.

“The Air Department is in a race for technological superiority against a well-resourced strategic competitor,” he argued. [PDF] Regarding China in the Senate hearings

“America now faces a competitor with a national purchasing power that exceeds our own – a challenge we have never faced in modern times. The ability to project power – particularly wind power. ” ®

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