National Security

The Unmanned Wingman

Why drones will never replace fighter jocks.

Imagine this scenario in the not-too-distant future: Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea have been building for months. After exhausting all diplomatic options, the president orders an airstrike against a highly defended enemy weapons depot. Four U.S. fighter jets launch from an aircraft carrier operating at an undisclosed location at sea. They effortlessly interact as one lethal unit, penetrating heavily guarded airspace, defending against multiple surface-to-air missile launches, releasing precision ordnance, and destroying their target. But the enemy air force scrambles fighter aircraft in an attempt to intercept and shoot down the four jets as they make their way out of the country's airspace. An airborne melee ensues and enemy pilots shoot down one of the four fighters. Only three surviving aircraft return to the aircraft carrier.

That night, however, the newswires remain silent. There are no reports of a potential prisoner of war. No government vehicles solemnly drive up to the house of the pilot's next of kin. The next day, there are no videos of Americans being paraded through town for propaganda purposes by the enemy regime. The downed fighter jet was unmanned.

What was once the stuff of science fiction is now only years away from reality. And the increasing capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles are undeniably awe-inspiring. The historic achievements of recent months clearly indicate that unmanned fighter aircraft will play a major role in the future of air combat. In June 2013, the X-47B achieved the first arrested landing of an unmanned aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier, and a few months later the first flight of an unmanned, remotely operated F-16 occurred at Tyndall Air Force Base. But let's not get carried away.

Human pilots physically located in an aircraft still represent an infinitely more adaptable platform and are irreplaceable when considering the high-threat environments of future wars.

Among many futurists, the misguided conception that unmanned or remotely piloted air vehicles will inevitably replace manned aircraft has become commonplace. In truth, however, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will not replace manned fighter aircraft. They will empower them.

Like energy production or personal investments, air combat strategic decisions demand a series of calculated tradeoffs, and the best policy is to maintain a balanced portfolio of options. To support as many options as possible, the development of future air warfare assets should focus on the seamless interoperability of manned and unmanned aerial aircraft.

Drones have proven their utility as surveillance assets with a limited precision-strike capability, but to operate effectively, they require a completely permissive air environment devoid of any threats. Aloft in uncontested skies, their slow speed and endurance are invaluable. They loiter over targets for hours and then strike at the perfect moment. America's complete air dominance made UAVs a perfect fit over Afghanistan and Pakistan. Flying in contested skies, however, these very attributes render them completely defenseless targets for the most basic air defense systems, as evidenced by their limited presence in the skies over Libya during the 2011 conflict. Recently, the far more lethal Syrian air defense systems have removed the use of UAVs from serious consideration.

As such, assuming the success of contemporary drones in future wars, based on the last decade of impunity with which UAVs have loitered over foreign territory, is a strategic error. Any future conventional conflict will likely occur over areas that are highly protected by sophisticated air defense systems, creating a hazardous environment for all aircraft. In deadlier skies, manned aircraft are uniquely equipped to defend themselves due to the one attribute that not even the most advanced unmanned aircraft will ever possess: a human being in the cockpit. Manned fighter aircraft can instantly adapt, maneuver, and defend themselves.

In considering an air war, an advanced aerial threat environment increases the likelihood of within-visual-range air combat, often referred to as "dog-fighting." The ever-persistent fog of war, coupled with complex target identification requirements, hinders the effective use of beyond-visual-range capabilities. As such, close-range dog-fighting may be the only way to complete particular future missions.

Dog-fighting presents the most dynamic aerial environment conceivable. Survival requires both proactive and instantly reactive three-dimensional aircraft maneuvering. Success requires critically outthinking an adversary while making split-second decisions, executing demanding maneuvers under crushing g-loads, and firing weapons at an enemy. At present, these are critical tasks that only pilots physically engaged in the battle can do. Distantly controlled unmanned aircraft lack these capabilities. If ever caught in a dog-fight, they transition from lethal airborne assets to defenseless targets.

From a pilot's perspective, the perfect wingman exists as an extension of the lead pilot, dutifully and silently following the lead aircraft, launching weapons and enhancing situational awareness when commanded, and autonomously completing the basic administrative skills of taking off, flying formation, and landing. This is the future of UAVs. In the near term -- until fully fighter-capable UAVs can be designed, tested, and produced -- modern fighters, such as the F-18 Super Hornet, F-15E Strike Eagle, and F-16 Viper, can be converted into "optionally manned" aircraft, which can be flown traditionally by a pilot in the cockpit or quickly configured to fly without a pilot onboard. With this capability, a traditional fighter pilot in a modern fighter aircraft may lead and control up to three UAV wingmen in the exact same type of aircraft in a traditional tactical formation.

With the development of unmanned fighter aircraft that can be controlled by an airborne pilot physically close by, one pilot could lead a lethal package of four fighter aircraft to complete missions that UAVs alone simply couldn't. By remotely operating his wingmen, the lead pilot would be able to adapt to the tactical demands of the battle and execute the mission at the speed of thought, seamlessly commanding the simultaneous operation of the entire flight of four. The heat-of-the-moment decisions could be made by the pilot in the battle, using his infinitely reactive brain to act in precise, real-time coordination with his unmanned wingmen -- in stark contrast to a remotely located UAV operator who cannot react at the pace of air-to-air combat. With one pilot that can simultaneously control and employ four UAV wingmen, these drones become not a liability or a hindrance, but force multipliers.

Given the constraints of distantly controlled UAVs, the next phase of combat aircraft development should focus on this exact formula: blending manned and unmanned combat aviation to capitalize on the advantages of both. Particularly, the capability to network and control multiple UAVs from the cockpit of a manned aircraft presents the natural starting point for UAV interoperability. In the role of support aircraft or "wingman," unmanned aircraft possess unlimited potential to empower pilots by adding critical numbers, acting as decoys, multiplying the amount of weapons available, and dispersing the risk of a human pilot being shot down.

A cohesive unit of four fighter aircraft has historically proven to be the most effective basic unit of an airborne combat force. The manned/unmanned flight of four will be a supremely valuable asset for aerial tacticians: a proven combat element able to instantly adapt, integrate, and execute complex mission plans, maximizing manned aircraft flexibility, and expertly leveraging unmanned aircraft advantages.

Unmanned fighter aircraft will not eliminate the need for human fighter pilots. Rather, future unmanned systems will exist to operate as an extension of fighter pilots, enhancing survivability, combat effectiveness, and lethality.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Smevog/Released

Democracy Lab

Vote of the Living Dead

Not all election monitors are the same: some of them are out to devour democracy.

Over the past few years, authoritarian regimes have come to place an increasingly high premium on the veneer and perceptions of elections, rather than on their substance. Today's savvier, more media-conscious autocrats are taking this approach to a whole new level: they are strategically deploying "zombie monitors," fake monitoring groups that praise obviously flawed elections in an effort to drown out more critical assessments by established monitoring organizations.

This subterfuge was on full view in Azerbaijan's Oct. 9 presidential election, in which sitting President Ilham Aliyev was re-elected with a whopping 85 percent of the vote. His closest competitor, Jamil Hasanli, was credited with 5.5 percent. In what has become the standard in this deeply repressive country, the incumbent authorities pulled out all the stops to ensure that no meaningful competition could take place on election day or during the campaign preceding it. The election monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (ODIHR) noted that the election was "undermined by limitations on freedoms of expression, assembly and association," and that "significant problems were observed throughout all stages of election day processes."

Though the ODIHR is now increasingly drawing criticism from the countries whose elections it criticizes, the long-term monitoring activities, mission size and experience of ODIHR observers make them a gold standard in the world of international election monitoring. This was the ODIHR's eighth election monitoring mission in Azerbaijan, and was comprised of a group of 30 long-term observers from 16 countries and 280 short-term observers monitoring polls on election day. This time around, though, the ODIHR found itself facing a host of competitors. Soon after the polls closed, a myriad of little-known election monitoring groups emerged in the country's capital Baku to publicly sanctify President Aliyev's victory. "The Inter-Commission Working Group on International Cooperation and Public Diplomacy of the Public Chamber of Russia Elections" and the "Commonwealth of Independent States Observation Mission" (CIS-EMO) issued positive assessments of the election process -- which were then disseminated widely by the Azerbaijani media.

Similarly rosy assessments came from other obscure groups like the "Observer Mission of the NGO Forum of the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)" and the "Observation Mission of the Standing Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean (COPPPAL)." The head of an observation mission from Pakistan's parliament, Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, even said at a press conference that "no significant violations were revealed during the voting," and added for good measure that "Azerbaijan is an island of development and prosperity in the region."

Most intriguingly, the pro-Azerbaijan government APA news agency referenced the obscure, Oklahoma-based Independent American Center of Political Monitoring, which it referred to as a delegation of "former congressmen and journalists." According to the APA, the Americans had declared the election "transparent and free."

A similar constellation of pseudo-monitors have been on the scene in recent, acutely flawed elections in authoritarian strongholds such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

None of these obscure monitoring groups has the authority or experience of the ODIHR, which has monitored elections in the region since 1994 and which, as a long-term observation mission, had been carefully monitoring the campaign and media environment for weeks prior to election day. But the proclamations of the pseudo-monitors served an important purpose for the Azerbaijani government, which sought to confer legitimacy on the election by deflecting international criticism of the lop-sided election process. These proclamations were supported by positive judgments made by more established Western groups like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, which also undercut the ODIHR and the more critical statements issued by the governments of Western member states themselves.

The rise of such zombie monitors can be traced to the mid-2000s, when the "Color Revolutions" toppled corrupt autocrats in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. In all of these cases, election-day statements by the ODIHR that these national polls were not "free and fair" prompted the mobilizations of popular protest against entrenched authoritarian regimes.

Fearing deeper scrutiny of manipulated elections, Eurasia's autocrats began fighting back. Beginning in 2005, regional organizations with no experience in election observation, including the Russian-led CIS-EMO and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) observation, began to send monitors to these polls. These new alternative monitors praised the conduct of patently flawed polls across Eurasia, citing their ostensible conformity with international law and state sovereignty -- even though, tellingly, neither signed the United Nations' Code of Conduct for International Observers.

Many of the groups that turned up in Baku did not even have this limited history. They issued positive judgments without any kind of details supporting their preparations, observation methodology, or funding sources for their missions. Yet their statements served to muddy the waters, for example by enabling state controlled media to emphasize the findings of the authoritarian-friendly monitoring, while ignoring, or at least marginalizing, the reports from the established OSCE monitors. Ultimately, these methods are designed to warp public understanding with the goal of offering the incumbent regime the veneer of external support.

The deployment of pseudo monitors in Azerbaijan and other Eurasian countries is part of a sophisticated new playbook of counter-tactics used by the region's authoritarians to bolster their international image. These countries now employ small armies of public relations firms and emphasize positive image-crafting through their extensive lobbying efforts in Washington and Brussels.

What stands out is the extraordinary degree to which repressive regimes that have not earned an authentic democratic mandate work to be seen to have done so. Indeed, the fact that so many observers of dubious provenance are enlisted to say -- Alice in Wonderland-like -- that an authoritarian election process has been "fair," "transparent," and "legitimate" is a strong indication of the enduring allure of democratic legitimacy and the acceptance of the importance of democratic norms.

Authoritarian governments like the ones in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia have shown their commitment to pursuing fierce competition over the perception of their elections results. If only they would allow real competition in the elections themselves.

TOFIK BABAYEV/AFP/Getty Images