SpaceX’s Founder Elon Musk Tells Air Force Pilots: ‘The Fighter Jet Era Has Passed’

SpaceX’s Founder Elon Musk Tells Air Force Pilots: ‘The Fighter Jet Era Has Passed’
Elon Musk, the chief engineer of SpaceX, speaks with U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson, Space and Missile Systems Center commander, and program executive officer for space, during a question-and-answer session on the first day of U.S. Air Force Space Pitch Day, Nov. 5, 2019, San Francisco, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Conrad)

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tells a room full of Air Force pilots: ‘The fighter jet era has passed’.

He predicted that the future of war would be carried out by autonomous drones and not by legacy aircraft.

During a fireside chat at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, Lt. Gen. John Thompson, who leads the Space and Missile Systems Center, asked Musk whether he had any innovative ideas about how aerial combat could be revolutionized.

The answer was less whimsical than what was probably anticipated.

“Locally autonomous drone warfare is where it’s at, where the future will be,” Musk said. “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. Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones.”

Hushed murmurs and laughter rippled across the audience.

Musk also said that Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet, which is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system, should have a competitor.

“The Joint Strike Fighter, there should be a competitor … that’s a controversial subject but I don’t think it’s good to have one provider,” Musk said. He later elaborated on Twitter that the F-35 competitor should be a drone.

“The competitor should be a drone fighter plane that’s remote-controlled by a human, but with its maneuvers augmented by autonomy. The F-35 would have no chance against it,” he wrote.

Throughout his discussion with Thompson, Musk warned that the United States was at risk of falling behind other nations if it did not prioritize innovation.

“This is not something that was a risk in times past but is a risk now,” Musk said. “I have zero doubt that if the United States doesn’t seek innovation in space it will be second in space.”

Musk’s comments dovetail remarks General James Michael Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, a day earlier. The general says the USAF may consider replacing manned fighters with attritable unmanned air vehicles (UAV), such as the XQ-58A Valkyrie, in the next five to eight years as it looks to retire aging Lockheed Martin F-16s.

While UAVs are nothing new, rapid improvements in artificial intelligence are giving USAF leaders – and Musk – confidence that the aircraft could be used in combat operations. The autonomy that artificial intelligence enables could allow the service to deploy the aircraft in large numbers without overburdening operators or risk losing control of the vehicles due to enemy jamming or interference with communication links.

When it comes to developing its next fighter, the Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft, the USAF is openly considering going without a pilot in the cockpit.

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