AI Could Enable 'Swarm Warfare' for Tomorrow's Fighter Jets

The dogfight hardly seemed fair.

Two F-16s engaged with an opposing F-16 at an altitude of 16,000 feet above rocky desert terrain. As the aircraft converged from opposite directions, the paired F-16s suddenly spun away from one another, forcing their foe to choose one to pursue. The F-16 that had been left alone then quickly changed course, maneuvering behind the enemy with textbook precision. A few seconds later, it launched a missile that destroyed the opposing jet before it could react.

The battle took place last month in a computer simulator. Here’s what made it special: All three aircraft were controlled by artificial intelligence algorithms. Those algorithms had learned how to react and perform aerial maneuvers partly through a state-of-the-art AI technique that involves testing different approaches thousands of times and seeing which work best.

The three-way battle offers a glimpse of how AI may control future fighter jets—and the likely challenges of deploying the technology.

The Pentagon is interested. Last March, its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) invited teams to develop AI systems capable of controlling fighter jets in aerial combat situations that exceed human abilities, including scenarios involving several aircraft. AI could allow multiple aircraft to “swarm” together in ways that could change the dynamics of air combat.
“One of the things that really stands out is the ability to enable what you would call swarm warfare—rapidly overwhelming opponents,” says Chris Gentile, an ex–Air Force fighter pilot who is a program manager at EpiSci, a military contractor that is developing the technology for the contest, dubbed Air Combat Evolution. He says pilots may someday tell an AI program to scan an area or take care of one adversary while the pilot engages with another. The instructions would be the equivalent of “cover me, basically,” Gentile says.AI has already shown its chops in the simulated sky. Last year, a single AI-controlled fighter plane easily defeated a human pilot in a Darpa demonstration. That program was trained using an AI technique that’s produced breakthroughs in video games and robotics. Reinforcement learning , as the technique is known, can train machines to do tasks such as playing subtle board games with superhuman skill . The learning process involves a large simulated neural network honing its behavior in response feedback, such as the score in a game. EpiSci is also using reinforcement learning for Air Combat Evolution.

The workings of modern AI raise questions about how feasible it would be to deploy the technology, however. Pilots would be required to put their trust, and their lives, in the hands of algorithms that work in mysterious ways. Real fighter pilot trainees spend months learning the correct protocols for flying and fighting in tandem. With several jets wheeling around one another at high speed, the slightest error or miscommunication could prove catastrophic.

Military leaders say that a human will always be involved in decisions about using deadly force. “Human-AI teaming is a certainty,” says Dan Javorsek, the Darpa program manager responsible for the program. Javorsek says this is partly because of the risk that AI might fail, but also for “legal, moral, ethical” reasons. He notes that although aerial dogfights are extremely rare, they provide a well-understood arena for training AI programs to collaborate with human pilots. The plan is to test the best algorithms on real aircraft in late 2023.