Navy F/A-18 Squadron Commander’s Take On AI Repeatedly Beating Real Pilot In Dogfight – The Drive

Posted: August 28, 2020 at 6:01 am


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It does not take much skill to put the aircrafts lift-vector on the other aircraft and yank on the Gs. In fact, if in doubt, just doing that will take care of 75 percent of the fight. But BFM is about being smoothly aggressive. Understanding the difference between when it is necessary to max-perform the aircraft and when it is time to preserve or efficiently gain energy back is key. In a tight turning fight, gaining a couple of angles at each merge can suddenly result in one aircraft saddled in the other aircrafts control zone working a comfortable rear quarter gun-tracking shot.

In true gamesmanship fashion, the guns-only BFM engagement was the setting for the AlphaDogfight contest. So what jumped out at me about the engagements? Three main points. First was the aggressive use of accurate forward quarter gun employment. Second, was the AIs efficient use of energy. Lastly was the AIs ability to maintain high-performance turns.

During BFM engagements, we use training rules to keep aircrew and aircraft safe. An example of this is using a hard deck, which is usually 5,000 feet above the ground. Aircraft can fight down to this pretend ground level and if an aircraft goes below the hard deck, they are considered a rocks kill and the fight is ended. The 5,000 feet of separation from the actual ground provides a safety margin during training.

Another training rule is forward-quarter gunshots are prohibited. There is a high potential for a mid-air collision if aircraft are pointing at each other trying to employ their guns. Due to the lack of ability to train to forward-quarter gunshots, it is not in most aviators combat habit patterns approaching the merge to employ such a tactic. Even so, it would be a low probability shot.

A pilot must simultaneously and continuously solve for plane-of-motion, range, and lead for a successful gun employment. It is difficult enough for a heart of the envelope rear-quarter tracking shot while also concentrating on controlling a low amount of closure and staying above the hard deck. At the high rates of closure normal for a neutral head-on merge, a gun envelope would be available for around three seconds. Three seconds of intense concentration to track, assess, and shoot, while at the same time avoiding hitting the other aircraft. The Heron Systems AI on several occasions was able to rapidly fine-tune a tracking solution and employ its simulated gun in this fashion. Additionally, AI would not waste any brain cells on self-preservation approaching the merge avoiding the other aircraft. It would just happen. The tracking, assessing, and employing process for a missile is not much different than the gun. I am pretty confident AI could shoot a valid missile shot faster than I can, given the same data I am currently presented within the cockpit.

The second advantage of AI was its ability to maintain an efficient energy state and lift vector placement. BFM flights certainly instill aviators with confidence in flying their aircraft aggressively in all regimes of the flight envelope. However, in todays prevalent fly-by-wire aircraft, there is less aircraft feel providing feedback to the pilot. It takes a consistent instrument scan to check the aircraft is at the correct G, airspeed, or angle-of-attack for the given situation.

Even proficient aviators have to use a percentage of their concentration (i.e. situation awareness) on not over-performing or under-performing the aircraft. AI could easily track this task and would most likely never bleed airspeed or altitude excessively, preserving vital potential and kinetic energy while also fine-tuning lift vector placement on the other aircraft to continue the fight if required.

Lastly is AIs freedom from human physiological limitations. During the last engagement, both aircraft were in a prolonged two-circle fight at 9 Gs on the deck. A two-circle fight is also referred to as a 'rate fight.' The winner is the aircraft who can track its nose faster around the circle, which is directly proportional (disregarding other tools such as thrust vectoring) to the amount of Gs being pulled. More Gs means a faster turn rate. 9 Gs is extremely taxing on the body, which the pilot in the contest did not have to deal with, either. A human pilot would have to squeeze every muscle in the legs and abdominals in addition to focused breathing in order to not blackout. During training, I maintained 9 Gs in the centrifuge for about 30 seconds. Then I went home and took a nap, and that was without being shot at. AI does not care about positive or negative Gs. It will perform the aircraft at the level required.

The truth is current aircraft have to be built to support the 'pile of human' sitting in it. The human will always be the limiting factor in the performance of an aircraft. I fight the jet differently now than I did as a junior officer when I was young and flexible. I have to fight differently. I know what my capabilities are to get a consistent and repeatable shot with the little bit of neck magic I have left to keep sight of the other aircraft. The fact that in the contest, the AI had perfect information at all times, and rules of engagement were not a factor, are not inconsequential details. I recognize that providing the amount of data and sensor fusion the AI would require to perform at the same level in a real aerial engagement (one that does not take place in cyberspace) is not a small undertaking and still a bit in the future. The rules of engagement discussion could fill up the syllabus for the entire semester of an ethics class, and will always be a touchy subject with regards to AI's involvement in war.

I am not an engineer, nor an ethics professor. Yet, as a pilot, I am intrigued. A computer model was able to react to the movements of a human pilot and effectively employ weapons. During the five engagements, the AI had 15 valid gun employments and the human pilot had zero. These results also hint at the AIs ability to avoid being shot while effectively employing its own weapons.

An AI-enhanced weapons employment system in my aircraft? I am not ready for Skynet to become self-aware, but I am certainly ready to invite AI into the cockpit. Hell, I am only a voting member as far as the flight controls are concerned in the Super Hornet anyways. If I put a control input in that is not aerodynamically sound (i.e. could result in a departure from controlled flight), the flight control system will not move the control surface or will move a different surface to give me the movement I am requesting. Who is flying who?

So, if tomorrow my seven-year-old daughter decides she wants to become a Naval Aviator, I am not going to shoot down the notion and go on a rant about the last generation of fighter pilots. I know there will be a Navy jet for her to fly. My future grandchildren, however? Saddle up kids and prepare yourself for some of Grandads wild tails of the greatest flight in Naval Aviation: the one-hour BFM cycle back to the Case One s**t-hot break. Those were the days!

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com

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Navy F/A-18 Squadron Commander's Take On AI Repeatedly Beating Real Pilot In Dogfight - The Drive

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August 28th, 2020 at 6:01 am

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