Into the wild blue yonder

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Pete Zuppas
  • 35th Operations Group deputy commander
My seven year old son recently informed me that he would soon be the world's greatest fighter pilot. I don't know where he got this idea but it made me wonder what future generations of fighter pilots will look like.

In the past 15 years, we have witnessed a fighter combat shift from a long-standing reliance on fighter pilot skills and training to an overwhelming reliance on technology.

Thanks to technologies such as Global Positioning System; GPS weapons, including joint direct attack munitions; data-links; advanced targeting pods; beyond-visual-range missiles such as the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile; helmet-mounted cueing systems; and high off-boresight missiles like the AIM-9X; the importance of traditional fighter pilot skills is rapidly dwindling. The old school fighter pilot is becoming almost obsolete.

Superior eyesight -- like in Chuck Yeager stories, hand-to-eye coordination, knife fight in a phone booth, check six, furball, aerial gunnery skills, corner velocity, look-out-the-window, situational awareness, reading a map, terrain masking, turn-and-burn, 9G tolerance, speed is life, hair on fire. These are a few of the fading requirements from the fighter pilot world of today and the associated "fly, fight and win" mindset also may be fading as well.

The modern fighter pilot is becoming more of a sensor manager or aerospace technician, and many of the tasks may not even require a pilot. MQ-1 Predators or drones carrying weapons like laser guided air-to-surface missiles are becoming the most valued air power asset in many current scenarios.

There are scientists with great plans in motion for even more capable umanned combat aerial vehicles to share and possibly rule the skies of the future.

Youngsters right now being weaned on X-Box will be our future trained killers controlling these critters from stationary consoles thousands of miles from the fight, far-removed from the battlefield. More and more we are taking the fighter pilot part out of fighter combat. Incorporating "At 'em boys - launch the UCAVs" into the Air Force song just won't have the same ring to it.

There is no doubt many of the technological advances and systems have made us exponentially more effective, especially in recent "unchallenged" air campaigns. And clearly our highest levels of technologies, the F-22 Raptor for example, can intimidate potential threats to the point they may elect to not even attempt to fly or challenge us.

But to what extent do we back off long-standing fighter pilot skills-based training especially for our legacy fighters and go "all in" on the technology bet without a balanced approach to upgrading tactics and training for old school skills and weapons.

Our heritage has been the man at the controls of the machine. It appears our horizon places more emphasis on the machine and technology. We certainly need to maintain America's high-tech edge, but we also need future generations of line fighter pilots and leaders to maintain a healthy competitive spirit and an appreciation for what it takes to maneuver a fighter to a position of advantage and track another aircraft in their gunsight.

The challenge, chivalry and thrill of "guns only" dog-fighting is clearly of a by-gone era. But the corresponding passion, will-to-win mindset and skill-sets derived benefits are not.

And who knows when we'll need to do some of that fighter pilot stuff. For example, all our current fighters have a gun and the Joint Strike Fighter will have one also. But it has been ages since we regularly employed -- other than our A-10 Thunderbolt IIs -- the gun in combat. Yet within the past couple of years, strafing has become an important tool in the war on terrorism. What goes around comes around. Technologies may fail or be denied and bingo, future generations need to be ready, like Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star in manual mode.

So, at least for now, and hopefully for as long as we have people in the flying machines "at 'em boys, give 'er the gun," we'll keep balancing our training to include a good dogfight now and then.

Good luck kids and happy hunting!

Comment on this story   (comments may be published on Air Force Link)

Click here to view the comments/letters page