Up With People

By Jason Simpson / January 16, 2009 at 5:00 AM

Sure, the Joint Strike Fighter could be set up as a manned-unmanned fighter jet, but is it worth it?

This rhetorical question was raised by Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Davis this week at a briefing on the F-35 Lightning II.

When asked if the JSF would be the last manned fighter jet, the F-35 program executive officer began his answer thusly:

When you're ready to hop on a United airplane going from Dulles to London without anybody in the cockpit, I'll tell you we've built our last manned fighter.

There will always be a role for a man in the loop for combat missions, he said, even if the requirement for 9-G maneuvering capabilities no longer exists; the Air Force will forever need someone to be able to push information in a real-time setting and “be able to get in and out of the places it needs to go without being destroyed."

“I don't ever see the requirement for some manned capability totally going away,” he said.

The Lightning II could easily be configured to fly unmanned missions through a ground control station similar to those used for target drones like QF-4s and QF-16s, but the JSF office is not working on those kinds of plans, Davis said.

What's to be gained by taking a man out of the cockpit? If you look at what we're spending money on primarily for what it costs to support that platform ((for manned flight)), it's the ejection seat and the separation system on the canopy. Beyond that, everything that would be in the cockpit today would be required for an unmanned system.

One difference: The plane's color displays would be irrelevant.

But, Davis said having a fighter drone for the sake of having one is trumped by the reality of what a manned jet carries with it: The creativity and adaptability of the human brain right in the thick of the action.

I consider us ((pilots)) a pretty cost-effective tool. In the flexibility that brings in a real-time situation -- the real-time thinking -- is probably worth the amount of money that it costs to build that ejection seat. Short of some of the long-endurance missions . . . there's always going to be a requirement for some guy to do something.