Why John McCain Thinks the Days of Fighter Pilots Are Over

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Brett Carlsen/AP

The days of the Navy fighter pilot are almost over—or at least they should be.

That's the opinion of Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We think that the Navy should be looking at drones to replace manned aircraft. I believe that the F-35 is the last manned fighter aircraft," he told National Journal. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the same during a speech in April: "The F-35 should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike-fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly."

Compared with manned aircraft, drones offer many advantages, but none greater than this: Drone pilots can, for example, fly a mission in Syria from a base in Nevada and be home with their families after. Fighter pilots face far greater hazards, and sometimes don't come home at all.

There is, of course, an extensive moral debate raging about how, why, when, or even whether the U.S. should carry out drone strikes, but even if the nation's defense shepherds decide they want drones to replace manned aircraft entirely, there's another hurdle to clear: a massive military-industrial complex that struggles to keep pace with changing technology.

Members of the Armed Services Committee have been blunt about their concerns that the Defense Department isn't adapting to new technology fast enough, but it's not simply a recalcitrance to adjust. The decision about where to invest in future military technology is inextricably intertwined with investment decisions made years or even decades ago.

The F-35 program was once the latest and greatest idea, too. Decisions about the F-35 were made "under very different strategic circumstances nearly 20 years ago," the committee noted in its report on defense authorization.

And just as the prospect of mothballing the F-35 has produced a gridlocked debate on Capitol Hill, some worry that decisions about drone innovations will meet a similar political morass—and stagnate because of it.

"We're in a massive period of technological shift, both a civilian shift and on the side of war—drones to cyberelectromagnet rail guns to space, you name it. They're all disruptive. They're all shifts," said Peter Singer, a military strategist at the New America Foundation who specializes in 21st century technology. "I'm a big supporter, clearly from what I'm saying, of updating wherever possible, not just merely the technology but the system and processing that yield that," Singer added.

Drones haven't hit this conundrum yet since they represent relatively new technology. DOD is unburdened by past decisions and can venture in a variety of directions, something the committee heartily supports. Remote-controlled planes and sea vessels could offer an alternative for monitoring far-flung areas from the relative safety and comfort of home, committee aides say.

Can a sophisticated drone system like that actually be developed? Congress is enthusiastic to find out. Lawmakers are giving the Pentagon the green light in developing military drones for a variety of missions—long-range and short-range, surveillance, strikes, etc.

Among the pro-drone perks in the Senate's defense bill: $10 million for 24 MQ-9 drones, the unmanned vehicles that have been used by special operations to combat terrorist organizations; $11 million for submarine-launched aerial drones; and $725 million in additional money for the Navy's unmanned combat air system program. The bill also encourages more coordination with academic labs on the development of cutting-edge unmanned air systems and sensors.

McCain and ranking member Jack Reed also are pushing DOD to step up its game on training drone pilots. They said in a recent letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that they believe the Air Force's recent statement that it lacks 400 MQ-9 pilots is understated. The shortages have "placed extreme strain" on the current pilots and sensor operators, the senators said.

The letter's notable opening offers a bold statement about where the military is going: "We are all aware that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are an essential element in America's warfighting arsenal."

McCain has gone so far as to suggest that the drone operations for spying missions should be moved from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Pentagon. He has met with opposition from Democrats and members of his own party, primarily Sen. Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee that oversees the spy drones. Much of that spy program still lies with the CIA, which isn't what McCain wanted. But the committee report also is peppered with encouragements to the Pentagon to develop drones on its own for many uses.

The trajectory of the Defense Department's fledgling drone and robot programs will be a prime indicator of how adaptable to new technology this country's defense system can be. McCain is proposing a dramatic overhaul of the acquisition system that he hopes will bring in more entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley and other nondefense R&D meccas. If his scheme works, the armed forces could look more like Iron Man each year, to the extent that the latest technology is put in use for our soldiers. At least that's the hope.

Even so, there are limits to the abilities of remote-controlled combat vehicles. Drone planes work best in sparse areas with few civilians and lots of space. That makes them great for hunting al-Qaida leaders in the desert, but not so great for the rooting out ISIS cells that gather in more populated areas. "ISIS is located in urban areas surrounded by civilian populations. It's much harder to use drones," said Audrey Kurth Cronin, a terrorism specialist and professor at George Mason University.

Procurement analysts also worry that the Defense Department's outreach to entrepreneurs will fall short because the profit margin is too low or the combat specifications are too difficult to meet. With some commercial profit margins at 30 percent or higher, it's hard to imagine a nondefense developer that would be willing to engage in a conversation about building a drone that the military says "should cost" X (less than commercial value) but also have Y and Z extra security features.

And then there is the worry that these green-lit programs will soon become old baggage. Killing a program is tantamount to publicly throwing taxpayer money in the trash, a political taboo. Keeping it going means there is still hope that it will work. The still-kicking F-35 fighter is a prime example. Once you commit to a major combat vehicle, it's best to see it through. At least that was McCain's explanation for not killing it in this year's NDAA. "First of all, the money was available. And second of all, the aircraft, we are committed to the acquisition of some 2,000 of them. We felt it was appropriate to go ahead and move forward," he told reporters last month.

McCain says his proposal for a new acquisition plan should alleviate the likelihood that drone programs will suffer the same fate. "The secretary of the Navy, when there is a new cost overrun, has to sign on the dotted line," he said. "They're going to be responsible."

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