F-16’s ‘VIP’ flight: Surpasses F-35, Su-57, and J-20 in lethality

Just a week ago, on the second day of May, a unique iteration of the F-16 soared into the skies from Edwards Air Force Base in California. Although this aircraft’s commanding presence was identical to the infamous Fighting Falcon we’ve come to admire, it packed a surprising guest aboard — none other than the U.S. Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall. 

F-16's 'VIP' flight: Surpasses F-35, Su-75, and J-20 in lethality
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

Typically, when we imagine high-ranking politicians aboard such advanced fighter jets, we write it off as mere publicity stunts aimed at bolstering the image of political or military power. However, this particular flight warrants a thorough analysis and international study. Why? Kendall wasn’t just a passenger in any ordinary aircraft. He took a journey aboard the X-62A Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft [VISTA], a machine purposefully engineered to examine the potential of artificial intelligence and autonomy in our skies. 

What’s truly awe-inspiring is that Kendall occupied the front seat, as the aircraft was predominantly governed by artificial intelligence throughout the flight. Here, Frank Kendall was given a sneak peek into the future. And as they say, the best way to make a case isn’t through lengthy narratives but through tangible demonstrations. Unquestionably, this revelation, orchestrated by a futuristic F-16, prompted Kendall to remark, “I can see into the future”.

Israel placed four GBU-31 JDAMs under the wings of its F-16s
Photo credit: Twitter

No pressure

In comparison to heavyweights like the F-35, Su-57, and J-20, the F-16, particularly the VISTA model, surprisingly excels in combat lethality. But what exactly sets it apart?  

After taking flight, Frank Kendall highlights the distinct advantages that computers bring to aircraft like the F-16. Computers do not suffer from fatigue, they do not fear, and their level of precision is consistent. Additionally, they can process vast volumes of data. To put it simply, this makes them potentially more effective in this role than their human counterparts.  

The VISTA does not suffer from the physical or cognitive limitations of a pilot. It doesn’t sweat, isn’t concerned about g-forces, or waste time on technically demanding maneuvers – it just executes them. The speed at which it processes information and organizes tactical mission details surpasses what a human brain could manage, regardless of the pilot’s skill or experience. In other words, the capabilities of artificial intelligence remain unmatched by human potential.

VISTA is self-learning

The Secretary dedicated an hour to experiencing the X-62A VISTA, a modified version of the F-16 fighter jet. This jet is used to train and test AI software in various combat situations. At one point during this flight, Kendall referred to a competition where a human-operated F-16 chased another aircraft in a continuous circular pattern. The goal was for each pilot to skillfully maneuver their aircraft, achieving a strategic position from which they could fire a missile. 

The AI-controlled aircraft were pitted against an exceptionally skilled pilot, boasting 2,000 to 3,000 hours of flight experience. The competition was neck-and-neck. However, Kendall believed that if the AI faced a less experienced human pilot, the artificial intellect would have undoubtedly triumphed. 

“Humans are restricted by their inherent limitations,” Kendall states. “When the time comes that our artificially intelligent machines can accomplish these tasks more efficiently than their human counterparts, they are the ones who will be entrusted with the task.”

Reported case

In the realm of artificially intelligent autonomous warfare machinery, the U.S. is not the only formidable player. Stern competitors, Russia and China, are also actively participating in this technological race. However, it wouldn’t be accurate to fall back on the common adage, “Only time will tell” when assessing the level of their success. Undeniably, an ethical question arises – where should we draw the boundary that artificial intelligence must not cross? 

20 countries want KARGU - the UAV hunting a man without an order
Photo: MSI

Can we strongly assert that human beings can control the unique creations they’re introducing through the means of artificial intelligence? As it stands, AI is still a man-made product, but who will assume responsibility when a situation spirals out of control and doesn’t follow the anticipated path? There are already precedents to consider. 

Allow me to refresh your memory. Years ago, as reported by BulgarianMilitary.com, a Turkish autonomous KARGU-2 drone misidentified a person in Libya due to a malfunction in the facial recognition system, resulting in a wrongful attack. This unfortunate incident wasn’t operator error – the drone was operating autonomously when the mishap occurred. This disconcerting event was recorded and reported by the United Nations.

A matter of ethics

When it comes to the use of automated weaponry, the U.S.’s chief concern remains compliance with the principles of armed conflict, asserts Kendall. It’s crystal clear that while machines play a prominent role, humans are ultimately accountable for their creation, testing, operation, and use. Thus, the key question is how to enforce accountability to ensure we’re abiding by universally accepted norms.

What raises eyebrows, notes Kendall, is the likelihood of our adversaries exploiting these weapons, sidelining concerns about collateral damage, in the pursuit of operational advantage. The ramifications of this potential misuse are not purely theoretical, as this is a scenario playing out in at least two raging conflicts across the globe. Replicating lessons learned from prior counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency operations—where sadly, some unwise commitments had been made—is crucial, yet the resolve to honor rules remains unshaken.

Kendall stresses the imperative to engineer automated weapons such that they inflict minimal collateral damage. Granted, perfection is a tall order, but relentless dedication to honing this enforcement is non-negotiable. “Our commitment to this cause remains unwavering and I assure you, we will put in our utmost efforts to uphold these standards,” concludes Kendall.

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