[Column] Drones and Air Force
[Column] Drones and Air Force
  • Kim Hyoung-joong, Chief Editorial Writer
  • 승인 2020.03.17 15:38
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Kim Hyoung-joong, Chief Editorial Writer and Head of Korea University's Cryptocurrency Research Center
Kim Hyoung-joong, Chief Editorial Writer and Head of Korea University's Cryptocurrency Research Center


The US Air Force is the strongest and the largest in the world. It holds many traditional pilots who fly F-35 fighter planes and B-2 bombers. There are also many pilots flying cutting-edge drones like RQ-170. They're all considered air force pilots, but the drone pilots are called operators or remote pilots.

In fact, nowadays the air force is sarcastically known as the chair force instead! The reason for this derogatory term is due to the increasing number of drone pilots sitting in comfortable chairs while working in front of computer screens in the air-conditioned rooms of an American airbase.

Clearly, controlling drones is much safer for pilots. Ensuring a pilot’s physical safety is one of the most important priorities in designing fighters. Drones have no such restrictions and can be boldly designed and much more offensively operated.

As a result, there are predictions that the F-35 will be the last piloted fighter. Even if a manned fighter is designed in the future, it is expected that it will be operated mostly as a drone.

Drone pilots don’t feel like they get the same respect as traditional pilots. Many remote pilots took off their military uniforms because they were excluded from the conferment of medals, and they believed promotion was not easy.

In the early days, fighter pilots controlled drones, but then the US Air Force began the new Air Force Specialty Code called 18X and new pilots were trained without having to be certified to fly planes. Unlike the traditional fighter pilots of the past, these new Air Force pilots only work on the ground.

The number of Air Force Academy graduates who want to choose a fighter track is decreasing. The breathtaking aerial battles experienced in World War II have disappeared. Recent battles were under drone control, so no risk of military personnel being shot down, captured or killed. As a result, becoming a drone pilot is preferred over flying fighters and bombers.

The operations of drone control and missile firing are performed by an officer, and sensors such as cameras are operated by an enlisted. Drones are put into operation for up to 24 hours without air refueling, so sometimes team members need to work in shifts.

It is already proven that one pilot can control up to four drones. Naturally, one enlisted is assigned to each drone to collect data. When the drone is simply used for flying cargo, the autopilot is responsible for most of the flight. As a result, the number of troops required will be greatly reduced.

Until 2009, remote drone control has taken place from the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. As the demand for drones has increased, several airbases are now sharing these missions. 

Maneuvering through satellites inevitably causes time differences. If the mission is not critical to the time lag, there is no problem. However, in the event of an emergency such as a dogfight, even a short transmission delay becomes serious.

Therefore, in the worst-case scenario, satellite signal interruption should be considered. Thus, close control may be necessary. Also, designing a system that relies on artificial intelligence and machine learning could also mitigate some problems.

In conclusion, even in the US, drone pilots are unlikely to be treated with proper respect until the air force's power of vested interest weakens. The concept of military operations on land, sea and air also needs to change drastically. It seems unlikely that there will be a big change until they run into strong enemies.

What about South Korea? It is hoped that the Ministry of Defense quickly realizes that the world is changing and responds preemptively. Otherwise, it will be too late to fix it after something has been broken.

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