Remote possibilities: the evolving role of the fighter jet pilot 

How will the role of fighter jet pilots change in the next 20 years? As optionally crewed and remotely piloted aircraft play an increasing important role for air forces, Alex Love asks how this shift could impact the role, training and recruitment of pilots.

// A Typhoon pilot with the RAF enters the cockpit. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD

In 20 years’ time, jet fighter deployment could look very different from the way it is done now. Sorties on the other side of the world may be performed remotely while the pilot is much closer to home.

Earlier this year, Elon Musk proclaimed “the fighter jet era has passed”, saying he believes automated drone warfare is the future. Furthermore, the development of optionally piloted, highly advanced aircraft such as the UK’s Tempest – and its rival project from Airbus, France and Germany – suggests high-performance uncrewed jets will play a greater role in future air warfare.

The changes this will bring for the role of pilots will depend on the size of an air force. The smaller the force, the less likely it is for operations to change dramatically. Air forces with greater resources will likely invest in more advanced technologies, so greater changes can be expected. However, an onboard human presence is understood to remain vital for certain core missions in any case.

Crewed or uncrewed?

Fighter jets will continue to be deployed for quick reaction and air defence missions, particularly in border areas. Pilots on the scene will be better placed to judge the context and intent of other aircraft than someone controlling a remote system from hundreds of miles away.

“If you're doing something like air policing, or combat air patrols, along a disputed border – such as between Turkey and Syria, or the Baltic states and Russia – there's a huge amount of political, geopolitical contextual awareness and situational awareness that needs to go into the assessments that pilots make during potentially quite tense confrontations to interpret things that are intended to signal aggression within their proper context,” explains Justin Bronk, editor of RUSI Defence Systems. “How to interpret that within the current geopolitical context in split-second situations is actually a very, very human skill. And one that comes with experience.”

Yet it is clear that uncrewed aircraft will be used regularly for other missions within the next 20 years, creating increasingly specialised roles and skill requirements for operators.

“Personnel piloting an aircraft, even remotely, will always require high levels of training and experience.”

“If you are looking at how states are going to penetrate modern defended airspace – and particularly go after some of those really difficult high-threat targets like air defence systems, command centres, radars, that kind of thing – I think you're going to see a significant move towards unmanned systems doing that kind of Vanguard penetrating role,” suggests Bronk. “Either being directly controlled, or more likely coordinating with piloted aircraft a bit further back, things like the F-35 that can penetrate. But if you have the option to do that highest risk, really close-in bit with an unmanned system, why wouldn't you?”

The rules of engagement are clear for piloted aircraft. When a crewed plane is shot down, there is usually a retaliatory strike. However, this is rarely the case for uncrewed aircraft. Nevertheless, personnel piloting an aircraft, even remotely, will always require high levels of training and experience.

“Everyone would agree that there should always be a person in the loop whenever an air force is flying a mission and I cannot see that changing,” says Archie Neill, director of operational training at BAE Systems’ air division. There is already a high level of training which goes into preparing air force personnel to operate unmanned aircraft, both live and synthetic, and I do not see that changing.”

“Pilots flying unmanned aircraft, particularly if they are high-performance, as is likely in the future, will still need an innate and first-hand understanding of the challenges so that they can apply appropriate airmanship and decision-making.”

An RAF pilot approaches a Hawk training aircraft.

An RAF pilot approaches a Hawk training aircraft. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD

Simulation vs real training

Pilots already go through a significant proportion of training in advanced flight simulators. This has provoked concern from experienced pilots who claim that new recruits become qualified despite lacking essential skills from time spent in the air. In the US, some have blamed this for a series of recent mishaps involving fighter jets.

But not everyone is convinced that these incidents are caused by simulator-heavy training.

“It's important to remember that modern fighter jets are unbelievably easy to physically fly compared to previous generation,” says Bronk. “The flight control software is so sophisticated that with things like a Typhoon or an F-35, it's almost impossible to get them to depart from controlled flight; to stall or spin, or to overstress the airframe. Unless you are manually turning off a lot of those safety features to practice reversionary training, you have to turn off a huge number to even practice those sorts of scenarios.”

“The future is about generating the optimal mix of training events between live and synthetic realms such that the operator is best prepared for their operational environment.”

The advantage of simulators is that they prepare pilots for a range of extreme scenarios that are impossible to replicate in real-world training drills. And simulator use is expected to only increase in future.

“There is undoubtedly a balance which needs to be struck and that balance will be different for each pilot as they go through their training; no pilot will be the same as any other,” adds Neill. “The training syllabus and resources need to be flexible in order to cater for the needs of different trainees and the pace and method with which they learn. The future is about generating the optimal mix of training events between live and synthetic realms such that the operator is best prepared for his or her operational environment.”

Just like the real thing

The design of BAE Systems’ Hawk advanced jet trainer simulator is based on the latest combat aircraft and it can also fly as a light combat aircraft. Around the world, 1,000 have been ordered across 18 countries to prepare some 25,000 pilots for handling a fast jet.

“Using its advanced airborne simulation, Hawk is able to put pilots at the controls of sensors, weapons, radar, defensive aids and countermeasures they will find on a frontline aircraft, such as Eurofighter Typhoon or the F-35 Lightning II,” says Neill.

“Its digital architecture means it is capable of simulating the latest software updates found on frontline aircraft, providing realistic scenarios which are programmed in to the jet's onboard computers prior to take-off and even re-programmed whilst the student pilot is in the air.”

With threats evolving continuously, simulators will be regularly updated to ensure pilots are prepared.

“Today's pilots are being prepared for a very different challenge to the pilots of even five or ten years ago; and the pilots of a decade from now will be trained for another challenge again, so training has to develop to meet the threat you are facing,” adds Neill.

“Pilots will always want to fly aircraft and I do not see a time that will change, but it is up to air forces to consider the threats they are facing and strike the balance accordingly; and for industry to deliver the technology for them to do that.”

An RAF Tornado pilot arrives at a US airbase for a training exercise.

An RAF Tornado pilot arrives at a US airbase for a training exercise. Image: Crown Copyright

New generations with new skillsets

The physical demands for a fighter pilot are immense. They have to endure forces of 9G, and also require huge levels of mental and physical stamina to stay alert throughout missions and control a complex suite of instruments. These demands are unlikely to change for crewed missions in future.

“In the QRA/air policing role, I think they'll still be fairly brutal in terms of being able to operate sustainably at 9G,” adds Bronk. “And if you're flying a platform that's more geared around penetrating defended airspace, I think actually demands on G-force, endurance, and air combat manoeuvres are probably going to be significantly pushed down the list of priorities.

“Because even if you have a stealth fighter versus stealth fighter – and they might get relatively close before they detect each other – the deciding factor is still more likely to be who manages their sensor picture and their positioning better, rather than who can out-turn the other one.”

“Pilots who come from a generation that's grown up with Xboxes and computer games all their lives are actually in many ways operating their jets better and more effectively in high-end exercises.”

Training for the next generation of pilots and operators now takes place much earlier, albeit inadvertently. The last couple of generations have grown up playing games consoles from an early age, where quick reaction times have developed; and adjusting to new operating systems has become second nature. These skills acquired from a young age have resulted in newly trained pilots bettering their more experienced peers in exercises, according to those involved with F-22s and F-35s.

“Ab-initio pilots are coming straight out of training, who come from a generation that's grown up with Xboxes and computer games all their lives, are actually in many ways operating their jets better and more effectively in high-end exercises than the people with 15-20 years’ experience flying previous generation jets, who are immeasurably more experienced fighter pilots, but have a perhaps more traditional mindset,” explains Bronk.

“So that's already been a notable factor for the US Air Force looking at some of these more modern capabilities, where it's really about managing your sensors and your situational awareness and your signature, rather than physically flying your jet to the edge of the envelope.”

While roles and training for pilots may change in the coming two decades, Bronk dismisses Elon Musk’s claims about the era of the fighter jet being over.

“The era of the fighter pilot probably now has a shelf life, but that shelf life is far more than 20 years,” he says. “Probably the last area where you will see a consistent demand for piloted platforms that look like fighters is in that quick reaction defence role. Just because of the political and contextual sensitivities required to do that properly.”