A swarm of small, fast, cockpitless fighter jets are flying in a tight circle around an F-22 Raptor, reacting to its every move, waiting for a command. They will scout ahead, attack or sacrifice themselves if needed, relying on their superhuman reaction time and precision to execute manoeuvres that human pilots would never manage to do. This is the way many nations envision the air combat of the future. But why?

There are several problems with the current generation of combat aircraft. First of all, they are incredibly expensive. One F-35 costs between $77 million and $102 million, that is almost 200 times more than state-of-the-art P-51 Mustang cost in 1945, adjusting its price to modern dollars. Even “cheap” stealth fighters like J-20 or Su-57 are estimated to have a price tag of at least $50 million, not including stupendous operating costs and program expenditures in their billions.

The second problem is the increasing cost of human (and especially pilot) life. Economically speaking, a life often has actual (although a bit vague and fluctuating) dollar rate attached to it – meaning, how much a nation is willing to pay to avoid the death of one of its citizens. Not only is that cost steadily rising, but political consequences of losing a soldier are becoming more and more acute for many governments, especially democratic ones, and the ones pretending to be that way. On top of that, pilot training costs are on the rise too, and creeping into the tens of millions for the newest stealth fighters, that require exceptional skills to operate. 

The answer to both of these problems is obvious: drones. As many conflicts show, they are excellent in situations where reconnaissance or ground attack is needed, mostly due to long endurance capabilities. Their pilots can take more risks too – that is why, for example, the United States are losing their UAVs in rows performing missions in hostile environments and not even batting an eye. 

But there is a difference between long-endurance missions, controlled by remotely located operators, and real combat. Coordinated ground attack and support, even more – air to air combat – pose a number of challenges for current drones.

One of those challenges lies in ethics, as many national and international restrictions require a human to take a decision to kill. Another one is a risk of electronic attacks, connection issues, and other communication interference. Lastly, most of current drones – even the stealth ones – are not exactly built for pitched combat. Pretty much anything that flies can carry air-to-air missiles, but attaching a Sidewinder to MQ-9 Reaper does not make a slow, clunky drone a fighter.

Nevertheless, combat drones can not only cut costs and save pilot lives, they also have all the prerequisites to be better than humans at fighting. They have much faster reaction time than even the best pilots and can execute complex procedures with unrivalled precision. Complicated tasks, such as air combat, rely on both of those skills. Psychology also plays a part: pilots can be scared, intimidated, or get sloppy after not practising for several months; computers don’t. Add an ability to endure G-forces that would crush a human into a pancake, and it comes as no surprise that artificial intelligence (AI) will easily beat the best fighter pilots in a dogfight.

So, the ideal here is to have combat-capable drones controlled by an advanced AI with a pilot somewhere nearby overseeing and directing their actions to avoid mistakes in judgement and legal issues. UAVs have to function along manned fighters, in one system with them, utilizing the computer's reaction time and precision, but relying on humans for judgement.