Man vs Machine

Is this end of dogfighting — again?

The AN/AAQ-37 electro-optical Distributed Aperture System (DAS) is the first of a new generation of sensor systems being fielded on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. DAS consists of six high resolution Infrared sensors mounted around the F-35 airframe in such a way as to provide unobstructed spherical (4π steradian) coverage and functions around the aircraft without any pilot input or aiming required.


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Although unmanned aerial vehicles have lately been in the news, air superiority, according to Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben Eliyahu, a former Israel Air Force commander is the real foundation of power. Unless you own the skies you cannot send in the drones.

According to Eliyahu, air forces are largely trading in expensive fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, which saves on life-cycle and training costs. However, he believes UAVs cannot deter enemies well enough yet.

“UAVs will not contribute enough to deterrence to prevent war,” said Eliyahu. “When the F-35 is operational in Israel, it will have a dramatic effect on deterring our enemies. So even if we have hundreds of UAVs, it won’t impact the balance of power as much as a single squadron of F-35s.”

The interesting thing about systems like the AN/AAQ-37 is that they represent a third pathway, as distinct from the man only or the autonomous only air combat vehicle. They represent a machine-assisted human operated combat vehicle. A kind of cyborg model. As Gary Kasparov noted in his article on chess and computing, a sufficiently powerful computer can often beat a man; but a man assisted by a relatively inexpensive computer usually beats the most powerful machines conceivable.

This synergy is known as “Moravec’s Paradox, in chess, as in so many things, what computers are good at is where humans are weak, and vice versa,” says Kasparov. So when human and machine get together the result is greater than the two separately. Kasparov notes that the world consists of complex problems, few of which can be analytically solved in polynomial time. Chess is a toy example of a complex system, and yet: “the number of legal chess positions is 10^40, the number of different possible games, 10^120 … Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy.”

Solving these problems is beyond a machine. It is beyond unaided human capability. But put the two together and … So for most worthwhile problems human beings extended by machines is the way to go.


Eliyahu’s intuition is that the air superiority battle falls into that class of problems that are so complex they cannot be addressed in any ordinary algorithmic way. Therefore there is the need for a man in the loop — albeit a machine assisted man — to solve the challenges of the near future.

The emergence of a new air combat paradigm may have the same destabilizing effect that advances in naval architecture caused in the early 20th century.  Advances in turbine propulsion, director fire control and armor made the  naval power of Great Britain obsolescent at a stroke.  Not only did this deprecate the vast legacy store of British warships, it rendered many of the traditional skills of seafaring valueless.

The real measure of an airforce, as has been pointed out by commenters on the Belmont Club, is not in the airplanes but in the airmen. If pilot skills are automated to a degree wherein relatively unskilled persons can become viable air fighters then the huge investment of the US military in traditional pilot skills will be lost.  As with the Dreadnought era all world powers will essentially find themselves starting at zero.

The US may in particular find its lead over rivals vanished as a result of its own technical innovations. Admiral Jackie Fisher convinced the British government that the only viable way forward was to abandon Britain’s legacy fleet in favor of a new class of warship called the Dreadnought.  By so doing, Fisher reduced Britain’s lead over its nearest rivals to a mere matter of months. A paradigm change is hardest on the market leaders. Especially when the market leaders are led by management that is not especially interested in grand strategy or air combat.


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