China urged to watch out as US chases AI-driven F-16 fighter jets for air combat of the future

China should watch out for America’s new experimental AI-powered F-16 fighter jet with potentially faster reaction times than human pilots, Chinese observers have warned.

US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall was recently taken on a flight aboard a modified F-16 powered by artificial intelligence, Associated Press reported last week.

The warplane flew Kendall in “lightning-fast manoeuvres at more than 550 mph (about 885km/h)”, according to the report. The X-62A Vista – or Variable In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft – also went nearly “nose to nose” with a second human-piloted F-16 as both aircraft raced within 1,000 feet (305 metres) of each other, it said.

“It was roughly an even fight” between the AI fighter jet and the human pilot with “2,000 or 3,000 hours of experience”, Kendall told an AI expo event in Washington on Wednesday.

Analysts in China said AI-controlled F-16s might give the United States an edge in future air combat given its better manoeuvring capacity than human pilots, and the automated platform would also mean fewer in-air casualties.

But Beijing-based military analyst Fu Qianshao said while the AI-controlled F-16 might “react faster” than human pilots, the United States had a long way to go before it could use the technology in real air-to-air combat.

The jet could pilot itself without problems, but “it might take massive machine learning to be used in air-to-air combat,” Fu said.

Such learning would include air combat tactics, targets analysis, and deciding on whether to fire weapons, which are “not easy tasks” for an automated platform.

“There might be accidental damage in letting unmanned aircraft decide by itself, especially in large-scale air battles, which is different from one-on-one battle scenarios where the target is clear,” Fu said.

“It would take time for the existing fighter jets to master this kind of autonomous operation.”

Air combat of the future could be between unmanned aircraft of this kind, and China is also developing its skills on that front and has conducted tests on simulators on the ground, Fu added.

“We are surely working on it, but it will not necessarily be used on existing modified warplanes. We will probably develop new AI-led unmanned warplanes.”

The X-62A Vista with Frank Kendall on board takes off from the Edwards Air Force Base in California on May 2. Photo: AP

State media last month quoted Chinese military analyst Shao Yongling as saying that the use of AI may be “game-changing” for future combat, after the US announced it had carried out the first known test “dogfight” between a human pilot and an AI-controlled Vista fighter jet in September.

The F-16 is by far the most widely used Western fighter class in the world, with more than 4,500 built since the 1970s.

China’s J-10, a medium-weight, single-engine, multirole combat aircraft is generally seen as a rival of the F-16.

“The US is walking on the right path to develop AI-controlled F-16 to explore new air combat capabilities, which China should pay close attention to,” Hong Kong-based military analyst Leung Kwok-leung said.

Even though the technology has yet to be perfected, the US Air Force plans to have a fleet of more than 1,000 AI-enabled unmanned warplanes, “the first of them operating by 2028”, the AP report said.

Leung said it was reasonable to first test the AI algorithms on the highly manoeuvrable F-16s. But like Fu, he too said China might take a different route to developing AI-controlled unmanned warplanes, rather than applying it on existing ones.

Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military analyst, pointed to the likely impact on training costs.

“To train a pilot is very costly and [AI-enabled unmanned jets] could reduce the human loss on the battlefield,” he said.



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