Can a machine grow beyond its programming and learn to be brave? Wing Commander Trav Hallen uses science fiction to explore an Air Force where autonomous drones are not only a reality, but a leading contributor to personnel security. Join ‘the Hamiltons’ in a mission to discover the elements of connection, courage, and trust. Join The Central Blue in questioning whether humans could ever consider a machine their teammate. Examine what forms the bonds of mateship and ponder what human traits our machine-counterparts might adopt.
I never liked the term 'drone'. That word always reminded me of the monotonous engine sounds of the aircraft my dad flew in the early 2000s. There was nothing monotonous about these jets. First off, the engine made more of a high-pitched whine than a drone. But more to the point, these jets were not boring, they were sleek, fast, adaptable, capable, and damn high maintenance. I don't mean maintenance like the old days, when maintainers would spend hours fixing the things the aircrew broke just to get the aircraft back with the aircrew having broken new things. For one, there were no aircrew to break anything. Maintenance on my FQ-3s was all about their high sortie-rates and the need to change their configuration regularly between missions. No, my jets were not drones; they were combat aircraft, the best in the Air Force's inventory.
The introduction of the FQ-3s changed the Air Force. But even though I would often tell my dad—particularly when he started on his misty-eyed rants about 'his' Air Force—that today's Air Force today is nothing like his day, there is one thing that seems to have endured. After I graduated from the academy and joined my first squadron, he told me that the aircraft that he flew each had a different personality; you knew what to expect when you saw which tail number you were assigned for each flight. Dad's favourite story was how, on his early operational deployments, the maintainers would name each aircraft after a celebrity, and that was how he started to develop a hatred for Vin Diesel. That hasn't changed, dad still doesn't like Vin Diesel and each of our jets, though born in the same factory and educated with the same code, has a unique personality.
I had that story in mind when I took command and stood up the Air Force's first operational FQ-3 squadron; in introducing the Air Force's future, I would take a leaf out of the history book. As each new jet arrived on the flight-line we named it. The squadron was skeptical at first, particularly with my decision to name them after the characters of the musical Hamilton (the younger squadron members had to search up what I was talking about). But as we started flying and each jet's personality began to emerge, I found that hangar conversations had changed in tone. The jets were no longer an 'it', they were 'he/she'. Tail numbers were only useful for entering details into the maintenance database or the C2 system; if you wanted to talk to anyone about a jet, you had to use their name: Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Laurens, Schuyler, Lafayette, Burr, and George (III).
I was ridiculed at the time by my crewed-aircraft-squadron peers. There was some validity to their jibes: these were machines, not people. But the reality was that we were a warfighting squadron, our crews would go into harm's way, and when we did, we would fight as a team. And when we fought, I needed my airmen and airwomen to see the jets not as 'attritables' but as essential players in what would be a bloody contest. As it turned out, my instincts were right.
We could see the war coming. The daily intelligence reports had changed in tone from concerned interest to ominous warning. Although our families did not have access to that intelligence, the media, both traditional and social, kept them surprisingly well-informed about how the region had become a powder keg with a short, lit fuse. It was when the ambassadors were expelled that we knew we had passed the point of no return. So it was no surprise when I received the warning order for our first operational deployment.
The deployment itself was uneventful. The jets deployed themselves, ironically with a crewed-fighter escort, and were met at the forward operating base by the squadron's advance party. The advance party was surprised to see the jets taxi in with newly minted nose art that gave the aircraft the appearance of sleek, grey birds of prey. The remainder of the squadron deployed the following week. It took us three weeks from receipt of the warning order to having the jets conducting their first milk-runs from our new island home.
My dad would have found our deployed air base bizarre; there were lots of aircraft—three squadrons worth as we cohabitated with two allied squadrons—but there were no aircrew. The decision had been made that the uncrewed squadrons would deploy to separate locations, which were often farther forward than their crewed counterparts. The rationale being the reduction of personnel forward minimised both risk and the logistics demands on the small islands from which we operated. Many of the squadron members took exception to the view that putting them inside the enemy's missile bubble should be considered as 'minimising' risk. Once the first couple of strikes came in, that angst turned first to resignation and then to resolve. True to historical form, our airwomen and airmen found focus in their work and solace in some genuinely dark gallows-humour. Despite the threat, and the seemingly endless demands of base recovery and mission launches, the squadron developed a level of cohesion and resilience that I had not imagined possible. Key to that cohesion was the jets.
When I watched Top Gun 2 in the seventh grade, I was inspired by the pilots I saw. Their personalities were larger than life, and that translated into the way they 'flew'. I knew this was fiction, but it was hard to shake that view of Maverick as the epitome of what aircrew were, both good and bad. In reality, the pilots I had met both through my dad and as I progressed through my Air Force career reinforced that there was a direct connection between the personality of the pilot and the way they flew and fought. We saw this play out with the jets as well.
As the jets operated either independently or with their crewed counterparts, they learned and evolved; this learning process was not uniform. The nature of the training schedule back home and the operational mission flown when deployed meant that no two jets gained the same experience. What emerged out of this was that each jet developed a personality. At the squadron we had seen this from a maintenance perspective, each jet had his or her quirks in terms of faults and physical maintenance. But we never saw them fly. Once they checked into the mission package we were blind to where they went and what they did. The operating squadron did not have a need-to-know. But after every sortie we would get feedback from the crews they flew with on how our jets had performed.
The first few times a crewed aircraft flew with the jets the feedback would be technical and precise: "A105-3 performed as tasked with only minor deviations from expected actions". But as they became more familiar and comfortable, the feedback became more detailed and descriptive. Formally we would still get the technical data on performance relative to task and expected behaviour, but the crew would accompany the technical with a more colourful and personal description: "Jefferson is getting pretty aggressive. He has no fear." Just like those who worked with them on the ground, those who flew with them in the air were humanising our jets.
Hearing the jets described in this way made them feel even more human than machine at times. A bond was forming between human and machine. A bond that proved so critical and, at times, difficult during the war.
From the first sorties the routine became for the squadron to turn out for each launch and recovery. We would see our squadron mates off and then we would watch them come home. The scenes were reminiscent of the B-17s returning home from bombing Europe during the Second World War. For the first few weeks we did this with a sense of excitement, but as the conflict turned it was more trepidation and anxiety.
We were lucky. Our first weeks were casualty free. The squadrons we shared the base with did not share our luck. They began losing aircraft just four days into their deployment. We came to think that it was not luck that kept our jets safe, but the way we treated them both on the ground and in the air. The effort we—our squadron and the crews that flew with them back home—had put into preparing the jets for war had paid off; they were ready, willing, and survivable. That thinking was naive.
We lost Jefferson four weeks in. That day will be forever stuck in my memory.
Jefferson had launched with five other jets for what turned out to be a protection mission for a high-value air asset that was being pushed deeper into the so-called "threat bubble". At the time we didn't know the specifics of the mission, just that we needed them launched by a set time and that the expected mission duration was 18 hours. The pre-mission prep and the launch were standard. And after the package had formed up and gone dark to us, the squadron finished up the administration, and then dispersed to rest, work-out, or just hang out. That relative peace was disrupted 16 hours and 38 minutes after launch.
As was standard, the airborne control authority established contact with us just before their hand-off of control back to us as the operating squadron. The message was short, formulaic, and heartbreakingly cold: "Mission successful. A105-3 destroyed. ETA remaining aircraft T1455Z."
We'd lost Jefferson.
As the squadron turned out for the arrival of the jets, I announced that Jefferson had been killed-in-action. The news was met by silence. No-one spoke as we watched the landing lights of five jets approach the runway.
The following day I received a call from the squadron commander of the airborne early-warning and control aircraft that our jets were tasked to protect the previous night. I could hear the sadness in her voice. She told me that the squadron had worked with our jets many times and always felt a sense of security, having seen what they could and would do to protect them in a fight. They had been nervous before the last mission knowing that they would be pushing far deeper into the threat bubble than ever before, but their nerves had been eased somewhat when they found out that 'The Hamiltons' would be their escort. They trusted our jets. It turned out the crew's nerves were justified. Attacks against the crewed aircraft were relentless for the full duration of the mission, and our jets played an essential role in fending them off. It was in the final hour of the mission that Jefferson was lost.
A coordinated attack from land- and sea-based surface-to-air missiles was overwhelming the defensive systems of both our jets and their protected crew. They were stretched, but they were managing. It was then that they were advised of an inbound four-ship of long-range fighters approaching from the west. All other assets were engaged, and so the only option was for the aircraft to scram east to hopefully out-distance themselves from the new threat. The post-mission analysis would show that they would never have made it. While our jets and the protected asset fled east, Jefferson turned and tracked west. By this stage he was down to just two missiles; not enough. As he closed the enemy fighters, Jefferson loosed off his last two missiles, both hitting their targets. But instead of turning away, he had pressed on. The third fighter was destroyed as it manoeuvred to avoid Jefferson bearing down on it at full-speed. The enemy never had a chance. Jefferson's machine intelligence and performance capabilities meant that would always outmanoeuvre a crewed adversary. All the protected crew saw was two tracks becoming zero.
With the threat reduced to a single fighter, the remaining five jets learned from Jefferson and turned to engage. Though we will never know for sure, it would seem that Jefferson's actions followed by the approach of the remaining five jets appropriately adjusted the remaining fighter's risk calculations. It turned and fled.
"Jefferson died saving my crew." The squadron commander's word stuck with me.
I am not ashamed to say that hearing that made me both immensely proud and deeply sad. Intellectually I knew that there was no comparison: the life of one airman or airwoman was worth more than all of the uncrewed jets in the Air Force inventory. But that does not mean that I could not help but feel that I had lost one of my team. Though Jefferson bled oil not blood, he was a member of our squadron.
There was no funeral for Jefferson, no medals, no obituary, and his name will never be on the Honour Roll at the War Memorial. We get that; we knew Jefferson was not a real person. But that did not mean that we didn't see his loss as our squadron's first combat casualty. Nor that his conspicuous absence from the flight line did not cast a pall over us. Jefferson was not a drone; he was a member of our squadron, our family, and his loss is still felt keenly by all who knew him.
I have never liked 'drones', and I will never see my uncrewed jets as 'attritables'; those are terms that are used by those who do not work or fight with the jets as part of their team. The companies that build them, the journalists that discuss them, the public that marvels at them, and the politicians that send them into harm's way will never appreciate the bonds that form between the humans and machines in a warfighting team. But they don't need to. The sense of family and the bonds that form between the members of a military unit, which makes them so effective, is not for external consumption; it is for us and us alone to know, understand, and cherish.
Wing Commander Trav Hallen is the RAAF exchange officer in the USAF A5/7 Combined Airpower Futures Team. He is a graduate of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies and a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Air Power Scholar. This story was inspired by an article on the RAAF’s Airpower Teaming System and a discussion with his 12 year old, Hamilton-obsessed daughter about her plans to join the RAAF.