The Retromancer's Cave

Summary: An in-character blog post from an Internet celebrity reporting from the near future.

Guest Post: The Last Pilot

By Mike "The Retromancer" Wolfe

Soundtrack: "Afraid to Shoot Strangers" by Iron Maiden

(I haven't flown enough to tell the difference between a Boeing and an Airbus, but one of my friends has. He's a former Air Force pilot, aerospace engineer, and model drone hobbyist. I'll away at a conference for grad school this week, so he was kind enough to write a guest post. So without further ado, here's former Captain Brian Park.)

I was one of a dying breed: the last human pilots in the USAF. It's nowhere near as impressive as it sounds. Remember the F35 Joint Strike Fighter? The B2? The F22? The awesome jet fighters that could go to the edge of space? Well, those days are gone now. Back in the Pacific Crisis, I was just out of AFROTC and called into service due to personnel shortages. My job was going over radar detection algorithms for drones. I wrote code on how drones could communicate with each other, act in swarms, and prioritize targets. Even though it was an AF project, it was mostly based on research from the Office of Naval Research. ONR was using swarms of drones as a point-defense against the Chinese "carrier-killer" missiles. While some of the PRC missiles were more bark than bite, they compensated for this in later designs and in numbers. Swarms of the damn missiles could even overwhelm Aegis cruisers and even the newer laser point-defenses. The US Navy was still dependent on surface combatants like the CVBG, but they didn't have enough Aegis cruisers to go around. Swarming tactics were largely successful in military history and nature, so my job was to fight fire with fire.

I began to notice something in our military branches. The Air Force was largely replacing many of its aircraft with semi-autonomous and fully autonomous systems, while the Navy still lagged in those regards. The Navy had carrier pilots overseeing swarms of drones from their cockpits, while the Air Force had the notable trend of decreasing human pilots all together. Our tankers, transports, and fixed-wing gunships were still manned, but the robots were gaining on us. There were even munitions that could deploy swarms of smaller drones, each selecting different targets to hit. Initially, most of our drones were lost due to airframe failures, but as of late, most of our losses were due to operator errors. Even our manned aircraft had less crew requirements, due to advances in automation. A fixed wing gunship, for instance, could carry more ammo and fuel if we didn't have to waste the space or weight on another crew member. We had longer operational times with the same platforms than even a decade ago.

I realized that my job wasn't just to make defense drones for someone to pilot. It was to train an AI to out-perform a human operator. Less humans in the loop meant performance might increase, since our AIs could react faster than any human ever could. So, I started from algorithms similar to what the Israelis used to shoot down rockets. I ended up writing programs for "kamikaze" defense drones. They'd anticipate the probable paths of incoming missiles, and swarm them. There wasn't enough drones to stop a full-on missile onslaught, but they could thin their ranks enough so the conventional point-defenses could handle them. In order to test them, some engineers rigged up prototypes, simulators, and dummy drones. I controlled one set of drones, and the AI controlled another set. Initially, my computer gaming reflexes gave me an advantage, but the computer began to learn from my tactics. Within a few days, the computer began outperforming me and the other human testers.

Fortunately for the world (but unfortunately for my curiosity), my invention never saw during the Crisis. Still, I saw some scenarios and simulations on how it would have gone if hostilities went on (assuming no nukes were launched at first). We would've commenced with bombing runs and missile strikes onto Chinese and Pakistani territory, while spec ops guys stirred up chaos on the ground by hitting infrastructure. The Indians would've thrown anyone they could against the Chinese positions in the Himalayas to seize strategic chokepoints and rivers, while simultaneously trying to deal with Pakistan, internal insurgents, and Bangladeshi climate refugees. The Chinese would've tried striking at us through economic disruption and network warfare tactics, and throwing missile swarms at any carrier strike group that got too close to its coastlines. Our bases in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, southeast Asia, and the nearby Pacific Islands would've definitely taken a few good hits. We would've relied on air power to keep bringing in reinforcements as our strategic reserves ran dry. Domestically, it would've been an even bigger unrest, as near-complete economic shutdown, rationing, and martial law would've been declared. (They've been making preparations for massive starvation and civil unrest-type scenarios long before the recent mega-drought, I've heard through the grapevine.)

The Chinese would've had their own domestic issues, as infrastructure and fuel were likewise hit hard. Some scenarios say the breakdown of China would've put the American scenario to shame, but I'm not too familiar with it. If the Chinese and American governments both endured this chaos, we envisioned the Americans gradually losing ground on mainland Asia (assuming North Korea sided with the Chinese and helped invade the south to neutralize or at least tie down the American bases there), but the PRC lacking the ability to sufficiently invade nearby islands. They might've landed a few commando teams in Japan, the Philippines, or maybe even Australia, but they wouldn't have been able to occupy Japan or the Philippines. Even if they did, resistance would certainly be a major issue. Beyond that, it would become an indecisive naval campaign between the remnants of the USN and PLAN.

Continental Asia was a different story. The Chinese invaded Vietnam before in recent (and ancient) history, and the Vietnamese courted the Americans as a deterrent against another invasion. While the Chinese could again invade and occupy again, there would likewise be stiff guerrilla resistance. Theoretically, the PLA might've reached as far as Indonesia if they were extremely lucky, but they'd definitely spread themselves too thin by this point. The Indians had plenty of population to keep throwing at the Himalayas, but a stalemate seemed to be the best they could hope for. Pushing too far into the Chinese heartland was definitely a no-no, as land wars in Asia are always a strategic blunder. Even the Chinese doctrine in southeast Asia was more about neutralizing or controlling the Straits of Malacca, rather than occupying the jungles of southeast Asia and dealing with the hellish counter-insurgency that would follow. Singapore would've definitely been a strategic location.

Even the best case American scenario was a different picture. Under our rosiest (for the USA) projections, Korea would've again become a bulwark on continental Asia, and our allies' territory would've allowed us to hit Chinese infrastructure and military installations until the state disintegrated or regime stood down. If the state disintegrated, we had plans in motion for installing a new state or finding pliable leaders. Either way, China would've again been fragmented, turning a once-stable country into a warlord-filled hellhole, exactly the way it was before the Chinese Civil War of last century. All of those scenarios believed the most realistic outcome was eventually, one side would get tired and decide to let the nukes fly long before total collapse.

Another scenario would've had the USA and China simply returning to the antebellum status quo (or something close to it), which is the best we could've hoped for. In light of all of that, I am glad someone was wise enough to stand down. Following orders and escalating is easy, but ignoring them or giving them is hard. Once I left the service, I wondered if I would've been strong enough to do that. There's still a lot about the Crisis that's been classified, and will stay classified for years. There have been some leaks, but many of them are contradictory. I suspect this was done to cover the asses of the people responsible. No matter what happened, I do know this. A lot of veterans on both sides are reduced to broken people. There were still a few firefights and war-crimes in remote parts of the world we'll probably never know the truth about.

Both American and Chinese citizens have record low levels of trust in their governments. While I left the service, I remember hearing a few rumors from the top brass. They say the government plans to pull back American troops from Asia, keeping the exact reasons hush-hush. This is just my speculation, but they could be up to two things (maybe both): moving the troops to de-escalate things with China and getting ready for domestic unrest. While I could understand bringing the troops home, the other possibility has me worried. Did we really avoid World War III just to sleepwalk into another Civil War? I've had my fill of war, so all I can hope for is the former. Maybe it's a good thing they're moving to drones. Less people involved in war mean less lives lost. But war always has its casualties, even if history will call it a Crisis.