The US military let artificial intelligence fly a fighter jet and even battle simulated enemies in air-to-air combat

  • A recent series of US military tests saw AI fly a fighter jet and battle simulated enemies.  
  • The modified jet practiced beyond-visual-range engagements and dogfighting, the 412th Test Wing revealed.
  • One official said the F-16 is “rapidly accelerating” how autonomous algorithms are tested.

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The US military successfully let artificial intelligence pilot a fighter jet and even battle simulated enemy aircraft during a recent series of flight tests. The incident marked a significant step for the Defense Department in developing advanced AI capabilities. 

Two different AI programs, with a human in the cockpit, piloted the X-62A Variable Stability In-Flight Simulator Test Aircraft, or VISTA, during 12 tests, which were carried out in December at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the US Air Force’s 412th Test Wing announced in a statement this week.   

The VISTA is a “highly modified” two-seat F-16 fighter jet, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. It can be piloted by autonomous AI programs and mirror the flight characteristics of aircraft like the F-16 jet or MQ-20 drone.   

One of the two programs tested by the US military was a product of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Autonomous Air Combat Operations, or AACO. This program piloted the VISTA in one-on-one engagements against a simulated enemy beyond visual range, the 412th Test Wing said.

The other program to pilot the fighter aircraft in testing, a creation of DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution, or ACE, engaged in dogfights, maneuvering within visual range, against adversarial AI.  

—Edwards Air Force Base (@EdwardsAFB) February 15, 2023

Both the AFRL and DARPA algorithms “were successfully uploaded into the VISTA aircraft, and then VISTA flew a series of pre-prescribed flight maneuvers with the algorithms, where the algorithms then took over control of the aircraft successfully,” Chase Kohler, the communications director for the 412th Test Wing and US Air Force Plant 42, told Insider. 

The military tested the programs one after another, swapping them out and running a new test within a timeframe of only a few hours.

“It is the first time that an aircraft of any type has been able to test two completely different proprietary algorithms from two specific programs within the same day — much less within a few hours,” Kohler said.   

One official familiar with the testing said in a statement to the 412th Test Wing that the VISTA is “rapidly accelerating” how autonomous algorithms are tested, adding that the system provides data that the Air Force can use to continue developing the algorithms. 

“The X-62A VISTA team has proven with this test campaign that they are capable of complex AI test missions that accelerate the development and testing of autonomy capabilities” for the Department of Defense, Malcolm Cotting, the research director at the Air Force Test Pilot School, told the 412th Test Wing.

The recent testing builds on years of artificial intelligence research within the military. Nearly three years ago, DARPA pitted an F-16 pilot against AI in simulated air-to-air combat. The AI achieved a flawless victory, but former US Air Force and Navy pilots told Insider that the situation was heavily gamed to the advantage of the artificial intelligence and that in a real fight, the AI would struggle.

This technology has continued to improve, but more work is needed on this capability. The aim of both the AFRL and DARPA programs, according to the 412th Test Wing, is eventually “developing AI-driven autonomy for airborne tactical platforms” for surveillance, beyond-visual-range combat, and dogfighting.

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