Reliable Security Information

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to fly unmanned in near future

Sometime in the not-so-distant future the most expensive weapons program in US history, the fifth-generation F-35 aircraft, will not require a human pilot, a US lawmaker said Tuesday.

Speaking to Axios on Tuesday, Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.) quoted a military general as saying: "the F-35 fighter that we're building now will probably be the last aircraft fighter ever built that will have a human pilot."

Autonomy is set to play an increasing role in warfare, Peters said. "Autonomy will start changing the face of warfare. You're going to have drones operating with autonomous function, perhaps autonomous tanks as well," he added.

One concept for integrating remotely-controlled F-35s into combat operations is for two manned F-35s to fly with and control four unmanned F-35s. This approach would allow the unmanned F-35s to both carry the lion's share of the sortie's weapons and to be stripped of sensors, making the unmanned planes cheaper, too.

As far back as 2006, Frank Mauro, vice president of advanced systems at Lockheed Martin, said: "we stayed focused on winning the F-35 in the early stages of unmanned aircraft development. Now we need to get recognition that we are in the unmanned systems business."

Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works has developed concepts for optionally piloted F-35s as well as unmanned F-35s. The Lockheed executive told Flightglobal in 2006 that he expected the US to become more interested in remotely piloted F-35s after all three F-35 variants--the Air Force, Marine and Navy versions dubbed A, B and C, respectively--had flown successfully.

The US Air Force's F-35A and US Marine Corps' F-35B have reached operational capability and are deployed around the world. The US Navy's F-35C is expected to reach operational status this year but is not expected to deploy until 2021.

The F-35 joint strike fighter program is estimated to be the most expensive in US history at a total program cost of $1.5 trillion, which includes the cost of purchasing the jets and the cost of sustaining them for operations. The program's has budgeted around $400 billion for acquisition and $1.1 trillion for aircraft sustainment and operations.

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