Air and Space Power Association lecture puts autonomy in control of the cockpit

5th April 2019

London, UK, 05 April 2019: The Air and Space Power Association launched the first of its lecture series for members this week as the organisation expands its role as an authoritative voice and platform for debate on the influence and relevance of air and space power.

The first of the ASPA’s ‘An Audience With’ lecture series saw Justin Bronk, Airpower and Technology Research Fellow for RUSI, challenge current thinking around airpower strategy and technology in his hour-long talk on ‘The Disrupters in Air Power, West, East and Far East.’

Bronk outlined the scenarios which will shape the future requirements of next-generation combat systems and diagnosed the increasing threat from proliferating Russian and Chinese technology. Questioning the survivability of manned combat aircraft in an increasingly contested environment and declaring the vulnerability of current airpower dependence on airfields, carriers, refuelling and other supplies for operations, Bronk concludes that Western powers should limit their ambitions for manned fighters and focus on fully autonomous UCAVs instead, albeit as part of a force mix.

Bronk said: “A mix of next generation manned combat aircraft limited to a modest level of technological ambition beyond the capabilities offered by current fifth-generation fighters like the F-35 and F-22, coupled with a stable of regularly evolving UCAVs in low-rate production, could offer both a way to rapidly expand NATO airpower if a crisis appeared imminent, and in a worst-case scenario at least offer a latent capability to replace losses and draw the worst attrition away from scarce manned assets in a high-intensity conflict.”

Unmanned, Bronk insists, means not remotely flown.

“Anything remotely piloted is not suitable as a UCAV. If you are designing-in remote piloting into your UCAV, it is not suitable for the current contested environment. If you want to go and fight the Russians or Chinese or be prepared to do so, remotely piloted UCAVs are completely useless.”

UCAVs are Bronk’s number one airpower disrupter.

“Why I think UCAVs are irresistible is their hugely reduced cost of ownership. It’s not that UCAVs are simpler than manned jets. The main issue is that you don’t have to spend the eighty per cent or so fast jet man hours flying them around to maintain pilot currency.  If you make it the same size (as a fast manned jet) it will go further and carry more weapons. Plus, you don’t have to pay pensions to operators, flying training or lose valuable skills to the airlines. Also, the design flexibility it gives you; if the threat nation has a new radar capability, you can change core shape if its survivability is at risk because you don’t need pilot commonality.”

Bronk accepts that new tactics and institutional structures are required to optimise manned/unmanned integration.  Other air power disruptors such as swarms and directed energy weapons could also be game-changers, he said, although both have significant technical disadvantages. Turning around EW signals faster than the enemy, he said, is game-changing. “The F-35 is the first platform with the required onboard sensor suite, processing power and architecture using a disrupter such as AI-driven EW.” A fifth disrupter, he said, is ‘A return to large aircraft’, primarily due to range and their multi-mission capability. “After 40 years of combat aircraft design in Europe, how do we continue as we don’t have the Pacific and range issues the US and Chinese have?  Range drives everything and it will transform the threat.”

Air and Space Power Association President, Air Marshal (Ret’d) Greg Bagwell, said:  “Justin is challenging us to overturn over a century of powered flight and remove the human intervention in air power. As an airman and former pilot, I am increasingly swayed by the argument for autonomy. It is this kind of discussion and debate that we wish to foster through our new lecture series and we welcome existing and new members to come and join these discussions to plot the waypoints for future air and space power. I look forward to challenging senior commanders, industry and government with similar thought-provoking, transformative ideas, at our Air and Space Conference 2019 on 17-18 July, which we organise on behalf of the RAF.”

Download Justin Bronk’s presentation on Future Disrupters here:

For further information about Air and Space Power Conference 2019 and booking your place, please visit The Air and Space Power Association website:

To find out more about ASPA events or to become a member, please visit our website:

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