Strategic punch by telepresence? The coming face of bombers may keep pilots grounded.

The other night I was flipping the channels to find something my 7-year-old could watch with us (without subjecting Mom and I to yet another PBS Kids show) when we happened to go past the Military Channel. The moment we did so they were just entering a show on the development of the AV-8B Harrier, the US and British fixed-wing V/STOL aircraft. I paused for just a moment as some early development footage showed a test pilot decide that that particular day’s flight was going pretty poorly – a decision communicated by his pulling the loud handle and punching out of the plane. My daughter recognized that something had gone pretty wrong with that image (pilots aren’t supposed to leave the plane before the ride has come to a complete stop) but I had to explain to her what had happened and why. I was reminded of a chat with an Air Force pilot some years ago where he told me that the most expensive component of a fighter jet was the pilot flying it.

Military vehicle designers have all thought about the notion of what they could accomplish were they able to build their machine without having to worry about the systems necessary to keep a human operator alive. Armor, air systems, temperature control, even sanitation and water supplies in longer-duration types are all systems that keep the human pilots alive and in fighting shape, but don’t really add to the machine’s offensive punch. There are limits to the human capacity to endure certain environmental effects and, at present, there are some of those effects we can do nothing about. (I’m speaking of G-forces but I’m sure there are others.) Imagine the capability you could build into a machine if the pilot could operate the vehicle from a distance, safe from both enemy fire and environmental effects.

Oh, man, are you kidding me? WHAT PILOT EVER GOT LUCKY IN A BAR BY TELLING SOME HOT HARDBODY THEY FIDDLED WITH JOYSTICKS AT A COMPUTER CONSOLE FOR A LIVING?!?!?

Yeah, well, not all progress is sexy. The profusion of remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) on the ground, at sea, and in the air shows you that the idea has merit and even members of the military are becoming comfortable with the idea. While there have been examples of ROVs (aircraft have picked up the nomenclature “unmanned aerial vehicle” or UAV; it’s an “unmanned combat aerial vehicle or UCAV if it’s armed) that been armed, most of them are recon or spotter vehicles. The Air Force has Predator and Global Hawk UCAVs but there’s not been an unmanned bomber. At least, not yet:

For almost a century, military bombers have played a significant role in turning the tides of world wars. These heavyweights often provide critical firepower in otherwise unreachable areas.

Despite the pullback of manned bombers in Afghanistan, the military continues to look toward a future of more reliable, accurate and effective bombers. The 2018 Bomber, some experts believe, is the answer.

The 2018 Bomber, now being developed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will be a long-range, penetrating heavy bomber that is flown autonomously by ground personnel.

On April 6, 2009, the Obama administration announced that the 2018 Bomber, also known as the Next Generation Bomber, would not make the cut for the defense budget.

But just last week, long-term funding may have been secured with a bill passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The 2018 Bomber (officially the “New Generation Bomber”) is a project, not a particular plane. The Boeing/Lockheed design looks an awful lot like a slightly-modified B2 stealth bomber. The picture available at the Fox News story is an artist’s conception, of course, so the actual plane might look very different. The key difference between this proposal and previous bombers is the fact the the crew won’t be flying aboard the ship. They’ll be in bunkers a long way from the strike and, while it won’t earn the swagger B-17 pilots completing their 50th mission acquired, they’ll be safe and ready to launch another mission even if their ship gets shot out of the sky.

I question whether this is really even possible in true battlefield conditions given the problems of simply operating a plane effectively via telepresence. Add in to those problems radio jamming and the fact that we won’t, by the nature of what’s going on in a shooting war, have any transmitters close by when the bomber comes to do its work and I just can’t see it. But we’ve overcome worse technological challenges before so…

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