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Despite the ability to beat chess grandmasters, poker professionals and strategy game players, artificial intelligence (AI) has not yet progressed to the point at which it can outduel a human being in high-speed, high-G air-to-air combat. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), however, is seeking to change that, looking to automate air-to-air combat, enabling reaction times at machine speeds and freeing pilots to concentrate on the larger air battle.

Turning aerial dogfighting over to AI is less about dogfighting, which is likely to be rare in the future, and more about giving pilots the confidence that AI and automation can handle a high-end fight. As soon as new human fighter pilots learn to take off, navigate, and land, they are taught aerial combat manoeuvres. Contrary to popular belief, new fighter pilots learn to dogfight because it represents a crucible in which pilot performance and trust can be refined. To accelerate the transformation of pilots from aircraft operators to mission battle commanders — able to entrust dynamic air combat tasks to unmanned, semi-autonomous airborne assets from the cockpit — the AI must first prove it can handle the basics.

To pursue this vision, DARPA created the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) programme, which aims to increase pilot trust in autonomous combat technology by using human-machine collaborative dogfighting as its initial challenge scenario.

“Being able to trust autonomy is critical as we move toward a future of warfare involving manned platforms fighting alongside unmanned systems,” observed ACE Program Manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office (STO), Lt Col Dan Javorsek. “We envision a future in which AI handles the split-second manoeuvring during within-visual-range dogfights, keeping pilots safer and more effective as they orchestrate large numbers of unmanned systems into a web of overwhelming combat effects.”

ACE is one of several STO programmes designed to enable DARPA’s ‘mosaic warfare’ vision, which shifts warfighting concepts away from a primary emphasis on highly capable manned systems — with their high costs and lengthy development timelines — to a mix of manned and less-expensive unmanned systems that can be rapidly developed, fielded, and upgraded with the latest technology to address changing threats. Linking manned and unmanned systems creates a ‘mosaic,’ wherein individual components can easily be recomposed to create different effects or quickly replaced if destroyed, resulting in a more resilient warfighting capability.

The ACE programme will train AI in the rules of aerial dogfighting in similar fashion to how new fighter pilots are taught, starting with basic fighter manoeuvres in simple, one-on-one scenarios. While highly nonlinear in behaviour, dogfights have a clearly defined objective and measurable outcomes which, coupled with the inherent physical limitations of aircraft dynamics, makes them a good test case for advanced tactical automation. Like human pilot combat training, the AI performance expansion will be closely monitored by fighter instructor pilots in the autonomous aircraft, which will help co-evolve tactics with the technology. These subject matter experts will play a key role throughout the programme.

“Only after human pilots are confident that the AI algorithms are trustworthy in handling bounded, transparent and predictable behaviours will the aerial engagement scenarios increase in difficulty and realism,” commented Javorsek. “Following virtual testing, we plan to demonstrate the dogfighting algorithms on sub-scale aircraft leading ultimately to live, full-scale manned-unmanned team dogfighting with operationally representative aircraft.”

DARPA seeks a broad spectrum of potential proposers for each area of study, including small companies and academics with little previous experience with the Defense Department. To that end, before Phase 1 of the programme begins, DARPA will sponsor a stand-alone, limited-scope effort focused on the first technical area: automating individual tactical behaviour for one-on-one dogfights. Designated ‘AlphaDogfight Trials,’ this initial solicitation will be issued by AFWERX, a US Air Force innovation catalyst with the mission of finding novel solutions to service challenges at startup speed. The AFWERX trials, which will be announced in the near future, will pit AI dogfighting algorithms against each other in a tournament-style competition.

“Through the AFWERX trials, we intend to tap the top algorithm developers in the air combat simulation and gaming communities,” Javorsek explained. “We want them to help lay the foundational AI elements for dogfights, on which we can build as the programme progresses.”

In the DARPA vision, future air-to-air combat may be conducted largely by trusted AI, elevating the human pilot’s role to cockpit-based mission command. (Image: DARPA)

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