My professor for Contemporary Tactical Thought posed a very interesting question about the use of unmanned vehicles and whether the days of the fighter pilot were numbered. A very good question and here is my response.
The introduction and proliferation of unmanned vehicles has revolutionized much of how Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Targeting (ISRT) are conducted on the modern battlefield. The development of the unmanned aerial combat vehicle (UCAV) is likely to be as revolutionary to warfare as the airplane itself. Assuming that either remote or autonomous capabilities can be developed, it is highly likely that he UCAV will take over many of the more dangerous duties of air warfare, particularly “Wild Weasel” missions for the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). As loiter times and payloads are increased unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and UCAVs will likely become the weapon of choice for on-call close air support and targeting of selected high-value targets as is already happening in Pakistan.
As far as ground combat, unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) will also continue to handle particularly dangerous jobs, such as clearing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and scouting terrain during urban combat. The development of remote or autonomous controls will also give UGVs the potential to perform valuable perimeter security duties for installations.
However, there are certain missions that will still require boots on the ground. Only an infantryman on patrol can truly conduct successful counter-insurgency operations via interaction and intelligence gathering from the local population. Many special operations missions will continue to require highly-trained personnel able to make split-second decisions based on a fluid situation. Peacekeeping or peacemaking missions like the Balkans will also require boots on the ground, for a political statement if nothing else.
The Department of Defense FY2009–2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap lays out a very ambitious agenda for integrating unmanned vehicles as force multipliers. There will likely be major changes to doctrine, strategy and tactics as the capabilities of these systems evolve and they become more ubiquitous on the battlefield. However, a lot more work must be done on autonomy, power systems, and payload capabilities before these vehicles assume a major tactical role.
It is probably not too much of a stretch however, to state that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be the last manned fighter plane the U.S. ever builds.