But continental Europe is determined not to be left out, and the French-led flying-killbot demonstrator project has just passed an important milestone.
Two days ago, France's defense procurement agency, Delegation Generale pour l'Armement (DGA), announced that the Neuron Unmanned** Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) would move from feasibility studies to a Project Definition phase, funded to the tune of €130m. The definition phase is expected to last until 2009, and will firm up details of the Neuron's design. Provided that approval to proceed continues to be forthcoming, the Gallic killbot will fly in 2011 and drop a laser-guided smartbomb in 2012.
That, for the moment, is as far as anyone plans for Neuron to go. No country has expressed firm interest in buying a fleet of such UCAVs, and as yet even the US military is unsure whether and/or how it wants to proceed. The US Air Force is quite happy to use low-powered flying robots such as the Reaper for dull tasks such as surveillance and even guided-weapons ground attack ("tank-plinking" as swaggering fighter jockeys called such duties in 2003).
The US has also funded tech demonstrations, which seem to show that bigger, jet-powered stealth UCAVs could take over more advanced duties such as battling enemy ground defences. But the ruling generals of the USAF - sometimes known as the "fighter mafia" - have so far shown no desire to proceed any further. For now, they're quite happy with their snazzy new F-22 manned*** jet.
Europe's Neuron may very well get no further than the American X-45 and X-47 have thus far. The stated purpose of the Neuron programme isn't to arm the air forces of France and its partners (Sweden, Italy, Greece, Switzerland and Spain), but rather to develop technologies and maintain design skills. Following completion of the Eurofighter and Rafale combat jets, the design offices of the continent might otherwise have become rather sleepy places by now. Furthermore, Neuron is a Stealth plane; its development will give European designers who haven't any access with the USA an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of radar-invisibility.
Automating a jet fighter has been possible for a long time. Remote-piloting it, though, calls for a lot of bandwidth, which in a combat context may be more difficult to provide than a human driver - and then you still have to train the pilot anyway.
A new day, however, may be dawning. The latest UCAV demonstrators seem to offer genuine killer robots, which can often interpret data and make decisions themselves. They might not need much bandwidth at all, and their operators might need no piloting skills.
It still remains to be seen whether air forces run by pilots will find these ideas appealing. ®
*Easy. There have been lots of military robots, drones etc in the 20th century, of course. But their widespread use as weapons platforms in their own right - killer robots - is more recent.
**Sorry - that should be Uninhabited, of course. Women have gained entry to combat piloting, perhaps just in time to have their jobs stolen by computers.
***Inhabited, that is.