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Top Gun in an armchair?

Posted by Richard on August 13, 2008

A generation of would-be aviators has grown up sitting in front of a computer mastering Microsoft Flight Simulator. The day has arrived when they can earn their wings, and kill people and break things, in the same comfortable surroundings, flying combat missions in a comfortable chair in front of a bank of LCD monitors:

The U.S. Air Force is, for the first time, converting a fighter wing from manned (F-16) combat aircraft, to unmanned ones (the MQ-9 Reaper.) The conversion, for the 174th Fighter Wing, has been in the works for three years, and the last combat sorties in manned aircraft were flown last week, by members of the 174th serving in Iraq.

The air force has already converted several combat wings to fly Predators which, while armed (with two 107 pound Hellfire missiles), are considered reconnaissance aircraft. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, optimized for seeking out and destroying ground targets. Jet powered combat UAVs are in development. It's only a matter of time before UAVs take over air superiority, strategic bombing and suppression of enemy air defenses duties as well.

Top Gun

It seems to be Air Force only at this point, but you can bet the Navy is thinking about how many UAVs it could put on an aircraft carrier. 

Reaper pilots may not look as cool as Tom Cruise in his flight suit, but their aircraft are much more cost-effective than F-16s. These combat UAVs aren't exactly cheap at $18 million apiece, but F16s cost three times as much, use 100 times as much fuel, and are far more expensive to operate. And then there's the elimination of risk to the pilots. 

The Reapers aren't small, either — almost five tons, with a 66-foot wingspan and a 1.5 ton payload capacity. That's a fair number of smart bombs and missiles. And they can remain airborne over 14 hours, with their ground-based pilots working shifts. And going home to their families each day.

Pretty cool. I just hope the Air Force isn't working on that SkyNet thing to take over control of these weapons from humans.

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