Air Force Generals to Elon Musk: The Fighter Jet Era Isn't over Yet

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Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, speaks during a news conference after the SpaceX Falcon 9 Demo-1 launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, speaks during a news conference after the SpaceX Falcon 9 Demo-1 launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Despite recent comments by SpaceX founder Elon Musk that the fighter jet is technology from a bygone era, the aircraft will remain on flight lines for many years to come, according to top Air Force generals.

Last week, Musk ruffled feathers when he told a room full of pilots at the Air Warfare Symposium in Florida that "locally autonomous drone warfare is where it's at, where the future will be."

"It's not that I want the future to be this; that's just what the future will be. ... The fighter jet era has passed," he said, as reported by multiple news outlets Friday. "Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It's drones."

While planning ahead for asymmetric warfare is a must, permanently parking fighters on the ramp isn't going to happen right now, said Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes.

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"For a long time, we're still going to need the manned aircraft on the fighter and bomber side," Holmes, an F-15 Eagle pilot, said Wednesday during the annual McAleese Defense Programs Conference. "We will increasingly be experimenting with other options, [and] we're going to work together."

He gave Musk the benefit of the doubt that the entrepreneur's comments were about "thinking about what comes next" -- dozens of years ahead, separate from the present battlefield landscape.

The Air Force should also be thinking ahead, Holmes said, citing the service's fighter road map, which roughly outlines where its aircraft inventory and platforms should be by 2030 and beyond.

"What we're trying to work through is to think about it as a capability road map to say, 'What is going to do the mission we've been doing with fighters?' [and] work [that idea] into the future," he said. "The answer to, 'Is it manned? Unmanned?' [is] yes."

During the conference, Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, the Program Executive Officer for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office, said that, while he isn't "interested in engaging in the battle of words with Elon Musk," the Pentagon's newest stealth jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will be around for the foreseeable future.

"I'm happy to see what comes next, be it manned or unmanned, but the F-35 is going to be here for a long time," Fick said.

Just how the service's fighter road map may develop is unknown.

For example, aging F-15C models need to be replaced, Holmes said. As of today, the only aircraft that can fill its shoes are fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35 -- or possibly the F-22 Raptor, if the capacity is there, he added.

The Air Force has said its older F-16 Fighting Falcon models will also be replaced by F-35s. However, Holmes hinted there may be some wiggle room as the service updates its assessments.

"When they need to be replaced, what am I going to replace them with?" he said. "So I want to work to do the experimentation to answer that question, [which is] 'Will I still want to replace them all with F-35s? Or will I start cutting in something else like [Musk] talked about?"

Holmes added that he and Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, are currently in discussions about what those options could be.

In October, the service cut the ribbon on the "Program Executive Office for Advanced Aircraft" at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The center is the first to be devoted to planning future fighters and what these jets -- which could incorporate a mix of drone sidekicks to augment the fighter -- might look like.

"There may come a day that we don't need to have people in [the cockpit], but it's not yet," Holmes said. "We've done really well at teaching some artificial intelligence machines to play complicated games, but they're playing games where they know 100% of the information.

"When you're playing in a game, where you have uncertainty, and you don't know everything, then there's still a role for people to play," he said. "And that's whether that's in the cockpit of a fighter or whether it's in the command-and-control center."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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