On a cloudless morning last May, a pilot took off from the Niagara Falls International Airport, heading for restricted military airspace over Lake Ontario. The plane, which bore the insignia of the United States Air Force, was a repurposed Czechoslovak jet, an L-39 Albatros, purchased by a private defense contractor. The bay in front of the cockpit was filled with sensors and computer processors that recorded the aircraft’s performance. For two hours, the pilot flew counterclockwise around the lake. Engineers on the ground, under contract with darpa, the Defense Department’s research agency, had choreographed every turn, every pitch and roll, in an attempt to do something unprecedented: design a plane that can fly and engage in aerial combat—dogfighting—without a human pilot operating it.
Stacie Pettyjohn, the director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, told me that the ace program is part of a wider effort to “decompose our forces” into smaller, less expensive units. In other words, fewer humans and more expendable machines. darpa calls this “mosaic warfare.” In the case of aerial combat, Pettyjohn said, “these much smaller autonomous aircraft can be combined in unexpected ways to overwhelm adversaries with the complexity of it. If any one of them gets shot down, it’s not as big of a deal.”
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