Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The New Air Command: Pilots Need Not Apply

Does this story make you as nervous as it does me?

Canadian defence researchers are debating the replacement of the trusty CF-18 jetfighter with a fleet of sophisticated, pilotless drones.

The idea of simply substituting one manned aircraft for another is something that should no longer be considered a fait accompli given the increasing complexity and relatively low cost of unmanned vehicles, said Thierry Gongora, a defence researcher.

In his study, one of the options Gongora suggested is replacing the CF-18 with an a fleet of pilotless drones.

"It's in the realm of possibility," he said in an interview from Ottawa. "There are people thinking that much outside the box."

In an age of tight budgets, a defence policy review and U.S. resolve to extend its security perimeter to the whole of North America, the idea of switching to drones isn't that far-fetched, said Gen. Paul Manson, retired chief of defence staff and a member of the conference of defence associations.

Not having to risk lives attacking heavily defended targets makes them very attractive, said Manson.

Given the huge expense of replacing the CF-18 and Ottawa's penny-pinching ways with the Canadian military over the last decade, the government could very well seize on the idea of a drone fleet.

"If you put this in front of the politicians and they think they can get away with a $1-billion system instead of a $3-billion system, then they'll be sorely tempted to go for it," said Manson, who oversaw the acquisition of the CF-18.

That's what worries me. DND doesn't exactly have an exemplary track record when it comes to purchasing major equipment for the Canadian Forces.

It may sound attractive to DND bureaucrats who like the idea of sending technology -- but not people -- into harm's way. It sounds awfully dangerous to me. If something goes wrong and there's no real pilot around, there's a big potential for collateral disaster -- like a pilotless drone losing contact with the ground and crashing into a friendly hospital because no one was in control. (And I'm sure that if Damian knew about this he'd share my skepticism.)

I'm only slightly reassured by the researcher's own reservations:

Whether technically savvy robots can replace flesh and blood pilots in all aspects of air combat is still a matter of debate, Gongora said.

For example, the technology does not permit drones to carry out air-to-air interceptions, such as tracking down enemy aircraft or escorting airliners that may have been hijacked.

He said it remains to be seen whether computer technology will leap ahead enough in the next decade to make interceptions possible.

A senior air force officer in charge of the squadron supporting the current CF-18 fleet is deeply skeptical.

"I'm not convinced the technology will be there," said Lt.-Col Carl Doyon in an interview from Bagotville, Que.

To this point, he said, there's been no effort to develop an air-to-air combat drone.

Well, not yet. So here's hoping the idea of the next Billy Bishop being a grounded tech with an RC unit doesn't percolate anytime soon ...