Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

Dark Horizon: Airpower Revolution on a Razor's Edge-Part Two of the "Nightfall" Series

Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

Dark Horizon: Airpower Revolution on a Razor's Edge-Part Two of the "Nightfall" Series

Article excerpt

The aviators accepted the robots, as servants, into their house, not because they liked them or even understood them, but because neighbors had eagerly bid for their ownership. The robots, however, kept challenging the boundaries.

-Carl Builder, The Icarus Syndrome

The release of "Nightfall: Machine Autonomy in Air-to-Air Combat" in the May-June 2014 issue of Air and Space Power Journal generated substantial conversation about the future of airpower, reaching across the Air Force, the joint team, and the defense industry.1 Achieving the end states and national advantage proposed by "Nightfall" requires an articulation of airpower theory and a committed institution. Consequently, this second article in a planned series addresses the organization of today's precursors that bear the title "remotely piloted aircraft" (RPA) employed by Air Combat Command, Air Force Special Operations Command, and various other government agencies.2 As Colin Gray observes, no weapon is strategic in and of itself but is merely a means for the construction of an actual strategy.3 Nevertheless, RPAs in the hands of coalition forces and other government agencies have done much to reverse the calculus of global counterinsurgency in favor of organized states.4 Perhaps most telling of all are moments when insurgents beg for a fight but then offer a caveat regarding the invitation by asking for relief from robotic aircraft.5

This article introduces a brief sketch of emerging theory to demonstrate how remote and autonomous capabilities are not merely an answer for niche contingency operations but central to the unfolding narrative of humanity's experience with airpower and of key importance to unlocking new insights into its fundamental nature. As multiple media sources have highlighted, however, pressures on Airmen in the RPA enterprise have reached crisis levels. For that reason, this article investigates the community to understand the exodus of talented, highly trained professionals who might have otherwise shaped the next chapter of Air Force history from within.6 Research methods included surveying 114 pilots and sensor operators from the MQ.-1, MQ-9, and RQ.-170; conducting several direct interviews; and inspecting records to corroborate assertions.7 One limitation of the study was a lack of access to RQ-4 users or a non-RPA control group. Because respondent views were sometimes emotionally charged, each section reports firsthand sentiment analysis and then a potential alternative explanation or parallel set of circumstances that occurred elsewhere in the service. The study found three major causes for the exodus: the welladvertised overwork, a service culture with an overt bias toward traditional aviation, and institutional reluctance to plan or provide for these Airmen's attempts to improve their circumstances. The article offers suggestions to posture the Air Force to behave responsively to joint force needs and to better leverage the advent of robotic airborne systems.


Since 11 September 2001 (9/11), demand for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) has been insatiable. The service's efforts to meet ISR requirements to fight a globally distributed extremist network contend with other problems: aging aircraft fleets in other mission sets, an international financial crisis, and tight federal budgets. Increased reliance on robotic aircraft during this period created a dilemma for accepted Air Force doctrine and culture: satisfying joint force needs predominantly required systems that remove or reinvent many of the familiar elements of aviation and present unknown viabilhy for future conflicts. This tension translated into spectacular fighting between the Air Force and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as they exchanged alternating accusations of "current-war-itis" and "next-war-itis."8 The proliferation of RPAs as an answer for ISR made the former iconic of the latter, potentially convoluting means and ways in discussions of either topic. …

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