Tomorrow’s “Top Gun” might have drone wingman, use AI

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FARNBOROUGH, England — Maverick’s next wingman could be a drone.

In the movies, fighter pilots are depicted as highly trained military aviators with the skills and experience to defeat adversaries in thrilling aerial dogfights.

New technologies, though, are set to redefine what it means to be a “Top Gun,” as algorithms, data and machines take on a bigger role in the cockpit — changes hinted at in “Top Gun: Maverick.”

“A lot of people talk about, you know, the way of the future, possibly taking the pilot out of the aircraft,” said 1st Lt. Walker Gall, an F-35 pilot with the U.S. 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath in England. “That’s definitely not something that any of us look forward to.”

“I’d like to keep my job as long as possible, but I mean, it’s hard to argue with newer and newer technology,” he said. “And if that’s the way of the future, that’s what it is. But I’m just here to enjoy it while I can.”

The future for fighter pilots was on display in July at the Farnborough International Airshow near London, one of the world’s biggest aviation, defense and aerospace expos.

Defense contractors outlined how artificial intelligence and other technologies will be used in the newest warplanes as global military delegations browsed mockups of missiles, drones and fighter jets. At stake are many billions of dollars as countries update military fleets or pump up defense procurement budgets amid rising geopolitical tensions.

The original “Top Gun” movie released in 1986 follows Tom Cruise’s hot-shot Navy pilot, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, through fighter weapons training school. In the sequel, an aging Maverick, now a test pilot, learns the top secret hypersonic plane he’s working on is being canceled so the funding can be used for a pilotless drone program.

It’s a debate that’s been playing out for years in the real world. Drones have been used extensively in the war between Russia and Ukraine and other modern conflicts, raising the question of just how much need there is for human pilots to fly expensive fighter jets and other aircraft — or whether unmanned aerial vehicles could do the job.

At the Farnborough show, experts said the future of air warfare is likely to be manned and unmanned aircraft working together.

One day, fighter pilots will “have a drone aircraft that’s flying as a loyal wingman” under their control, said Jon Norman, a vice president at Raytheon Technologies Corp.’s missile and defense business.



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