July 24, 2012: Why does the U.S. Air Force seek to give all its fighter pilots ten very realistic combat training sorties (taking off, carrying out a mission, and landing)? That's because studies of thousands of fighter pilots has found that those who survive ten combat sorties are much more likely to continue surviving and have a good chance of becoming an ace (five or more aircraft shot down). Creating realistic training sorties has been difficult because you are never sure who you will have to fight. But since the 1970s, the U.S. military has been a believer in the "ten sortie rule."
The research that led to the ten-sortie-rule turned up all sorts of interesting, and sometimes useful, information. For example, it was found that some 80 percent of pilots killed in combat never knew that they were a target until the attacker opened fire. Interviews with foreign (especially Japanese and German) pilots showed that this was common and most of the victims were pilots with few combat sorties to their credit. All this led to discovering the concept of maintaining situational awareness (knowing exactly where you are and where everyone else is).
Probably one of the most valuable tools for maintaining situational awareness was JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Data System). Development of this system began 30 years ago and mature examples of the technology only began showing up in the last decade. JTIDS is a datalink that gives the pilot complete and real-time situation report, showing what other pilots (and planes like the E-3) are seeing. Pilots who tested JTIDS reported drastic increases in their situational awareness. For example, in most cases pilots with JTIDS had a 4-to-1 kill ratio in their favor against pilots without JTIDS.
And then there's the mystery of what makes an ace. Since World War I (1914-18) researchers have been seeking to discover why some fighter pilots are aces while most (about 95 percent) are not. More recently there were studies that detected unique difference in brain activity among fighter pilots. But little research has been possible on aces themselves because there are no more of them on active duty. Still, the research continues, as success in this area would make it possible to more efficiently recruit superior fighter pilots and train them faster and more effectively.
In some ways the brain scan studies have confirmed some of the earlier work in this area. For example, studies have long sought to find common factors among aces. For World War I aces it was found that aces tended to be very accurate shooters, even if they were sometimes lousy pilots. World War II research found some similarities in eye color and the gender of children and an apparent ability to quickly size up any situation (situational awareness). Further research confirmed that aces were quick thinkers, who were better able to figure out where they were. But it was observed that these qualities were common in all who were more successful in combat, be it as tank crews, infantrymen, commanders on warships, or team athletes (football, basketball, hockey, and so on). But fighter pilots were individuals that fought in a way where it was easier to measure success and recognize those who were superior.
Meanwhile, in the last half century only three U.S. Air Force pilots have become aces. There may never be any more aces. In nearly a century of operations only 816 American air force fighter pilots have become aces. Most (87 percent) of those were in World War II. There were 39 aces in the Korean War and only three during the Vietnam war. In the last two decades no fighter pilots have scored four or more victories.
Since World War II, the U.S. Air Force, along with American naval aviation, has become the dominant air power on the planet. Moreover, the availability of nuclear weapons has restrained the major world powers from fighting each other directly. So the only wars are between second and third rate proxies, who face American fighter pilots. These smaller nations tend to see their air forces destroyed on the ground, or have too few aircraft in the air to allow American pilots to become aces. The biggest threat to American pilots is anti-aircraft fire, either bullets or missiles.
The future of air combat is in unmanned aircraft, including robotic fighters that no human pilot could overcome. This is because the unmanned aircraft can undertake maneuvers that the human body cannot handle. Too tight a turn at too high a speed causes human pilots to black out. Robotic aircraft do not have this problem. Moreover, a robotic aircraft would be run by software that could possess a better degree of “situational awareness” than any human pilot. This isn’t science fiction, as many current warplanes have numerous functions run by computers. This is often done because a human simply could not make flight decisions, and execute them, fast enough to prevent the aircraft from crashing. Braking systems on many automobiles use the same technology. It’s not a revolution in technology that is creating the robotic fighter but an evolution. The ace is becoming extinct. But the essence of what makes a pilot an ace is still subject to capture, so that it can be incorporated in the software that will act as future combat pilots.