F-16 ‘dogfights’ F-16 in ‘ultimate clash’ between humans and AI; USAF prepares ground for future wars

The United States Air Force (USAF) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) conducted a dogfight between an artificial intelligence (AI)-controlled fighter jet and a manned fighter.

DARPA announced earlier this week that during a test conducted last September at Edwards Air Base, an X-62A VISTA aircraft, a modified F-16 fighter used for testing and training AI software , dueled a human pilot in another F-16.

Air Force officials told reporters that the successful effort to have the X-62A VISTA participate in air combat training could help the service improve its plans for collaborative fighter aircraft or autonomous drone wingmen, which are expected to play a very important play in future battles.

For the past four years, DARPA has been working on the Air Combat Evolution, or ACE, initiative, which aims to improve the military’s use of artificial intelligence (AI) in aerial warfare and increase pilots’ confidence in the reliable and safe operation of autonomous increase equipment. .

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, in collaboration with Calspan Corporation, created a unique training aircraft, VISTA. It is equipped with software that allows it to replicate the performance characteristics of other aircraft, including flight control capabilities. It is built on an open system design.

The program has made incredible progress since its launch. For example, a modified F-16 fighter jet only completed a test flight controlled by artificial intelligence for the first time in history in December 2022. At the time, the aircraft was reportedly flown by an artificial intelligence agent for more than 17 hours, marking the first time AI has been in a tactical aircraft.

A release issued by the agency said: “The flights demonstrated that AI agents can fly a full-scale fighter jet and provided invaluable live flight data.” Since its construction in December 2022, the X-62A has completed at least 21 test flights.

Less than a year after this autonomous flight, the AI-powered fighter jet had taken on a manned F-16, which appears to be a huge achievement for the USAF.

So far, the military has only used autonomy in flight areas that are known and predictable, such as the Auto Ground Collision Avoidance System, which increases safety by reducing controlled flights into terrain accidents for aircraft like the F-35.

Col. James Valpiani, commander of the Air Force Test Pilot School, noted that AI would need to acquire a whole new set of skills for dogfights within visual range, which is perhaps the most risky and unpredictable form of flying in which a pilot can participate. .

“Dog fighting poses a very important challenge to the issue of trust” in autonomy, Valpiani said. “It is very dangerous by nature. It is one of the most difficult competencies that military pilots must master.”

Due to national security concerns, the US military will not reveal the outcome of this real-life battle between a manned aircraft and an artificial intelligence-controlled F-16. However, speculation is rife that the AI ​​fighter jet may have achieved a historic victory.

Some reports referred to the August 2020 confrontation between an AI-controlled fighter and a fighter pilot in a simulated battle. AI defeated a human operator 5-0 in a simulated dogfight and did not allow the human pilot to score a hit. At the time, officials said the results were not particularly shocking because the battle was not entirely realistic.

File image: F-16

It was previously claimed that the AI ​​system functioned in a combat environment for which it was trained and that it appeared to have access to knowledge that it would not have in the real world.

It looked more like a computer game than a real dogfight, with real planes competing against each other. The AI ​​would have “crashed and burned” in a real battle, they said. However, technology has advanced since then.

In 2021, reports surfaced that China’s PLA Central Theater Command Air Force had simulated a dogfight in which a highly experienced pilot was shot down by an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered aircraft. However, that was also a simulated training exercise.

US air combat in the real world seems to be a first and very different ball game compared to a video game-like simulated battle.

The USAF is based in VISTA

The Air Force and DARPA began real flight tests of AI agents using VISTA between December 2022 and April 2023. And in September 2023, VISTA was ready to take on a human pilot.

VISTA flew against an F-16 for two weeks under various conditions, including conditions where it was initially at a disadvantage against the aircraft flown by a human pilot.

Before embarking on heavy offensive maneuvers, VISTA began its flight with defensive maneuvers to increase confidence in flight safety. According to Valpiani, the jets were engaged in aggressive flying, making nose-to-nose passes and vertical maneuvers while traveling at speeds of up to 1,200 miles per hour and staying within 2,000 feet of each other.

Two pilots manned VISTA’s cockpit, rotating between AI agents to assess each one’s performance and monitor the systems. They never had to take control of the plane. VISTA conducted 21 test flights between December 2022 and September 2023.

Colonel James Valpiani stated that the AI ​​agents on board the planes could be changed or improved during a mission, which likely made dogfights more difficult for the opposition.

General Dynamics X-62 VISTA US Skyborg
After recently receiving a new look and modifications at the Ogden Air Logistics Complex, the NF-16D, known as VISTA (Variable Stability In-flight Test Aircraft), will depart Hill Air Force Base, Utah, on January 30, 2019. This aircraft is the only one of its kind in the world and is the flagship of the United States Air Force Test Pilot School. This F-16 is highly customized, allowing pilots to change the aircraft’s flight characteristics and stability to mimic those of other aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Alex R. Lloyd)

“We were able to make software changes overnight,” he explained, adding that “we were able to upload the software changes to the aircraft while it was momentary, ready for takeoff and even in the air to be.” He said that “we will be able to switch between multiple versions of the same AI agent in the air, between battle sets.”

According to Valpiani and Lt. Col. Ryan Hefron, DARPA’s ACE program manager, the AI-flown VISTA performed well and tested a range of agents with different capabilities. However, they would not specify how many times VISTA outperformed the human-flown F-16. “The purpose of the test was to demonstrate that we can safely test these AI agents in a safety-critical air combat environment,” Hefron said.

According to Hefron, the program will next host more VISTA versus F-16 games to hone the technology and try out different scenarios.

They claimed that ACE’s lessons had applications other than just dogfighting. With ACE’s help, the service will be able to develop unmanned CCAs that can conduct airstrikes and surveillance missions while flying autonomously alongside manned fighters such as F-35s and the Next-Generation Air Dominance platform.

The USAF’s interest and commitment to the AI-piloted jets was recently demonstrated when Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall announced he would take a flight in the self-piloting aircraft later this year to witness firsthand the AI ​​algorithms at work .

According to Valpiani, Kendall’s flight in the