Navy F/A-18 Squadron Commander's Take On AI Repeatedly Beating Real Pilot In Dogfight

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to the stunning results of DARPA's AlphaDogfight trials, now hear what the skipper of a fighter squadron thinks.

Commander Colin 'Farva' Price

The recent 5 to 0 victory of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) pilot developed by Heron Systems over an Air Force F-16 human pilot does not have me scrambling to send out applications for a new job. However, I was impressed by the AlphaDogfight trials and recognize its value in determining where the military can capitalize on AI applications. 

For most military aviators, it may be easy to scoff at the artificiality of the contest. I may have even mumbled, “Never would have happened to a Navy pilot…” Instead, I think it is important not to get wrapped too much around the axle about the rules of the contest and instead focus on a couple of details that really jumped out at me on the advantages an AI pilot would have over a human pilot. 

For the contest setup, the argument about the death of the dogfight, or that there is no need for within visual range engagements anymore is a tired one. There was a pretty popular movie in the ‘80s about that very argument, so I am not going to rehash it here. The fact is we still constantly train to dogfight in the Navy, or as it is more commonly referred to 'Basic Fighter Maneuvers,' or BFM for short.

Editor's note: To get up to speed, you can read all about the AlphaDogfight trials and their stunning outcome in this recent War Zone piece. You can also watch the final round where the AI faced-off against the USAF F-16 Weapons Instructor and hear some commentary about the high-profile trials from those that worked on it for DARPA in the official video below.

BFM is great airborne training for gaining an understanding of your energy state in relation to the enemy and to exercise your situational awareness in a three-dimensional space in a physically demanding environment. An aviator has to understand how to aggressively maneuver their aircraft while at the same time integrating their weapon systems to cue a weapon, assess the quality of the weapons track, and determine if the trigger should be pulled to employ the weapon. All at the same time, they must be preventing the enemy from accomplishing the same process. It is a dynamic and stressful environment that creates better fighter pilots. I have yet to meet a pilot who is an above-average BFM pilot, but struggles in other mission sets. 

There are multiple reasons why aircrew may find themselves at the merge with the enemy. But if they do end up at the merge, the goal is always the same: take the first shot to kill the enemy before they can shoot them. 

This fact sometimes gets lost in training engagements. To maximize the training, the BFM fight will often be taken to a “logical conclusion.” Even though each aircraft may trade shots early in the fight, the two aircraft will keep fighting down to the hard deck till there is an obvious winner. Aircrew will come to the debrief patting themselves on the back for the gun footage they have of the other aircraft, but once the footage is played, they realize they absorbed the first shot well before their triumphant gun pipper placement. The real-world logical conclusion could have been very different if they were missing a wing or engine because of a missile impact. 

The goal at the merge of achieving the first shot must be continually hammered home. 

Still, the reality is that missiles do not always guide and fuze, thus we extend fights to teach aviators how to continue to survive or turn a defensive situation into an offensive one. The true sport of fighter jet aviators is a guns-only BFM engagement. A guns-only BFM engagement is a test of who can efficiently maximize their energy package and capitalize on each merge. Much like chess, truly great BFM pilots are thinking two to three merges ahead, not just reacting. 

It does not take much skill to put the aircraft’s lift-vector on the other aircraft and yank on the Gs. In fact, if in doubt, just doing that will take care of 75 percent of the fight. But BFM is about being smoothly aggressive. Understanding the difference between when it is necessary to max-perform the aircraft and when it is time to preserve or efficiently gain energy back is key. In a tight turning fight, gaining a couple of angles at each merge can suddenly result in one aircraft saddled in the other aircraft’s control zone working a comfortable rear quarter gun-tracking shot. 

In true gamesmanship fashion, the guns-only BFM engagement was the setting for the AlphaDogfight contest. So what jumped out at me about the engagements? Three main points. First was the aggressive use of accurate forward quarter gun employment. Second, was the AI’s efficient use of energy. Lastly was the AI’s ability to maintain high-performance turns. 

USN

During BFM engagements, we use training rules to keep aircrew and aircraft safe. An example of this is using a hard deck, which is usually 5,000 feet above the ground. Aircraft can fight down to this pretend ground level and if an aircraft goes below the hard deck, they are considered a “rocks kill” and the fight is ended. The 5,000 feet of separation from the actual ground provides a safety margin during training. 

Another training rule is forward-quarter gunshots are prohibited. There is a high potential for a mid-air collision if aircraft are pointing at each other trying to employ their guns. Due to the lack of ability to train to forward-quarter gunshots, it is not in most aviators combat habit patterns approaching the merge to employ such a tactic. Even so, it would be a low probability shot. 

A pilot must simultaneously and continuously solve for plane-of-motion, range, and lead for a successful gun employment. It is difficult enough for a heart of the envelope rear-quarter tracking shot while also concentrating on controlling a low amount of closure and staying above the hard deck. At the high rates of closure normal for a neutral head-on merge, a gun envelope would be available for around three seconds. Three seconds of intense concentration to track, assess, and shoot, while at the same time avoiding hitting the other aircraft. The Heron Systems AI on several occasions was able to rapidly fine-tune a tracking solution and employ its simulated gun in this fashion. Additionally, AI would not waste any brain cells on self-preservation approaching the merge avoiding the other aircraft. It would just happen. The tracking, assessing, and employing process for a missile is not much different than the gun. I am pretty confident AI could shoot a valid missile shot faster than I can, given the same data I am currently presented within the cockpit. 

SuUSN

Super Hornet pilot in the cockpit about to launch off the deck. 

The second advantage of AI was its ability to maintain an efficient energy state and lift vector placement. BFM flights certainly instill aviators with confidence in flying their aircraft aggressively in all regimes of the flight envelope. However, in today’s prevalent fly-by-wire aircraft, there is less aircraft feel providing feedback to the pilot. It takes a consistent instrument scan to check the aircraft is at the correct G, airspeed, or angle-of-attack for the given situation. 

Even proficient aviators have to use a percentage of their concentration (i.e. situation awareness) on not over-performing or under-performing the aircraft. AI could easily track this task and would most likely never bleed airspeed or altitude excessively, preserving vital potential and kinetic energy while also fine-tuning lift vector placement on the other aircraft to continue the fight if required. 

Lastly is AI’s freedom from human physiological limitations. During the last engagement, both aircraft were in a prolonged two-circle fight at 9 Gs on the deck. A two-circle fight is also referred to as a 'rate fight.' The winner is the aircraft who can track its nose faster around the circle, which is directly proportional (disregarding other tools such as thrust vectoring) to the amount of Gs being pulled. More Gs means a faster turn rate. 9 Gs is extremely taxing on the body, which the pilot in the contest did not have to deal with, either. A human pilot would have to squeeze every muscle in the legs and abdominals in addition to focused breathing in order to not blackout. During training, I maintained 9 Gs in the centrifuge for about 30 seconds. Then I went home and took a nap, and that was without being shot at. AI does not care about positive or negative Gs. It will perform the aircraft at the level required.

USN

F/A-18F manuevering hard. 

The truth is current aircraft have to be built to support the 'pile of human' sitting in it. The human will always be the limiting factor in the performance of an aircraft. I fight the jet differently now than I did as a junior officer when I was young and flexible. I have to fight differently. I know what my capabilities are to get a consistent and repeatable shot with the little bit of neck magic I have left to keep sight of the other aircraft. The fact that in the contest, the AI had perfect information at all times, and rules of engagement were not a factor, are not inconsequential details. I recognize that providing the amount of data and sensor fusion the AI would require to perform at the same level in a real aerial engagement (one that does not take place in cyberspace) is not a small undertaking and still a bit in the future. The rules of engagement discussion could fill up the syllabus for the entire semester of an ethics class, and will always be a touchy subject with regards to AI's involvement in war. 

I am not an engineer, nor an ethics professor. Yet, as a pilot, I am intrigued. A computer model was able to react to the movements of a human pilot and effectively employ weapons. During the five engagements, the AI had 15 valid gun employments and the human pilot had zero. These results also hint at the AI’s ability to avoid being shot while effectively employing its own weapons. 

Courtesy of Commander Price 

Farve and his fellow Black Knights of VFA-154 flying and fighting in the age of COVID.

An AI-enhanced weapon’s employment system in my aircraft? I am not ready for Skynet to become self-aware, but I am certainly ready to invite AI into the cockpit. Hell, I am only a voting member as far as the flight controls are concerned in the Super Hornet anyways. If I put a control input in that is not aerodynamically sound (i.e. could result in a departure from controlled flight), the flight control system will not move the control surface or will move a different surface to give me the movement I am requesting. Who is flying who?  

So, if tomorrow my seven-year-old daughter decides she wants to become a Naval Aviator, I am not going to shoot down the notion and go on a rant about the last generation of fighter pilots. I know there will be a Navy jet for her to fly. My future grandchildren, however? Saddle up kids and prepare yourself for some of Grandad’s wild tails of the greatest flight in Naval Aviation: the one-hour BFM cycle back to the Case One s**t-hot break. Those were the days! 

USN

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com