back to article So long, Top Gun... AI software waxes US F-16 pilot's tail 5-0 during virtual dogfight drills

An AI bot defeated a human pilot in a series of virtual dogfights that unfolded in skies albeit within a flight simulator during a competition held by the US military research arm DARPA. The fighter pilot battling on behalf of us humans, a US Air Force instructor nicknamed “Banger,” struggled to fend off the AI system …


  1. Glen 1 Silver badge
    1. DavCrav Silver badge
  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Well, duh.

    That new fancy F-35 fighter plane was obsolete before it could even take off. Everybody with half a brain cell knew it.

    1. Glen 1 Silver badge

      I dunno, autopilot is a thing. If they don't have macro hotkeys like "perform high-G blackout manoeuvre and don't crash/die until I come round" then are they even trying?

      I would have thought "aim bots" would have been in use since the 90's and possibly before then. Remember, they had laser guided bombs in 1968 (Vietnam). Not to mention radar assisted guns in the 40s.

      My point being that software like this would just be an extension of those systems, and thus usable on an F-35.

      There is an old saying, "If you're not cheating, you're not trying"

      1. Stork Silver badge

        I think Saab Viggen had radar aiming of the gun in the fighter version, ca. 1990

      2. I am the liquor Silver badge

        Certainly they have "aimbots" that fire the gun automatically at the right moment, the pilot just has to point the plane in the right direction. It doesn't seem much of a leap to have the computer steer the aircraft as well does it.

        But arguably they've already been doing that since the 1950s: the computer in the air-to-air missile works out how to steer itself at the target. And it doesn't even need "AI" to do it.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Glen 1 wrote:

        > There is an old saying, "If you're not cheating, you're not trying"

        I prefer - "If you find yourself in a fair fight, you planned it wrong!"

        (attributed to David Hackworth)

    2. Pete 2 Silver badge

      "Obsolete" is a rather harsh term. The americans (still) reckon that the F35 has a service life up until 2070.

      What they don't reveal is that the first 5 years of those 50 is as a promotional gimmick and the remaining 45 years will be as a target drone for testing AI-piloted next-generation fighters.

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        After the first five years the remaining 45 will be to operate 'No exit' maintenance contracts with the suckers that bought the thing from the States, a system pioneered by Xerox.

    3. Persona Silver badge

      Very obsolete if it gets down to dog fighting range. The gun on a fighter is fixed to the airframe so to aim it you point the plane. If the gun could be aimed over an additional arc the pilot would not be able to control it and fly at the same time. An AI pilot could both pilot the plane and independently aim the gun while pulling 9G.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        If the gun could be aimed over an additional arc

        I imagine that, whilst not necessarily impossible, doing this would be highly problematic, as a modern fighter's gun is a rotary cannon producing a huge amount of recoil when fired. For example, the recoil thrust produced by the GAU8 cannon in the A10 Thunderbolt is greater than that produced by one of its own engines (so it's a good job it has two), and while this is a slightly extreme example, you can see why having these sorts of forces off centre line would play havoc with aircraft control.

        1. Persona Silver badge

          you can see why having these sorts of forces off centre line would play havoc with aircraft control

          Just a degree or two would make a big difference to aiming accuracy and certainly help put a bit more lead on the passing target. As for the control impact, an AI pilot should be able to not only compensate for these highly predictable forces but also incorporate them into the attack "solution".

          1. Chris G Silver badge

            It's not only about the AI, it's also about very complicated engineering, to compensate for a directional change in stressing forces could require extensive redesign that could possibly be detrimental to the overall performance envelope.

            I have never worked on modern combat aircraft but I did spend a few years as an airframe engineer.

            The closest to combat aircraft was working on a WWII vintage T6 trainer.

            1. Glen 1 Silver badge

              So you're saying it would be easier to let the AI have control of the aircraft to provide extra "assistance" to to aim? Current off-bore targeting tends to be focused on missiles.

              Hell, having RCS thrusters / Viffing / Canards to point and shoot while stalled would make some high-G manoeuvres unnecessary. (Think B5 Starfighter) Altitude permitting to recover, of course.

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Nor forgetting the manoeuvrers that Harrier pilots came up with. An F-35 under full computer control could probably pull some very interesting manoeuvrers against a human pilot. Although I suspect that when the first fully non-human piloted fighters are ready to go into service, they may not look like what we think of currently as fighter aircraft.

          2. TeeCee Gold badge

            You are assuming that an AI controlled aircraft needs to fly in a straight line and can, therefore, only fire straight ahead.

            I'd have thought that slewing the airframe to aim would be simpler, using stick and opposite rudder, although the reaction times required to hit anything by doing that are rather beyond human capabilities.

        2. iainr

          The thunderbird's cannon is optimised for ground support/anti tank operations. the gun in most modern fighters is lighter and the F35s is somewhere between.

      2. Why Not?

        Why would you risk a pilot & multi (tens of) million or even a billion plus aircraft on dogfights?

        Surely a fleet of high altitude cheapish (<$15 million) drones with remote humans targeting the weapons would be the obvious solution. In a nice underground bunker with a Starbucks of course!

        I sort of assumed they had already got intelligent targeting for their missiles, the drone operator lights it up once and the missile follows the target regardless of the pilots attempts to evade, so maybe this AI is best for the hellfire missiles.

        A core mounted gun with a more agile drone could do close up stuff.

      3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "while pulling 9G."

        That's the deal breaker when it comes to a meatbag pilot against AI assisted remote pilot. Suddenly the flight envelope is only limited by the strength of the airframe and power of the engines. And you no longer need the weight of the pilot plus gear/life support and the heavy ejector seat.

      4. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        They do that on attack choppers all the time. The Apache had a forward gun controlled by where the pilot (or gunner - don't remember specifically which) was looking, not where the chopper was pointed.

        But a helicopter doesn't go supersonic, and dogfight tradition is you point the plane. It was rather successful in both world wars.

      5. iainr

        The pilot aiming the cannon is probably not that difficult, the chain gun on the apache helicopter is aimed via an ocular sight so will shoot anywhere the pilot can shoot. I imagine the difficulty is designing a steeerable gun pod that can cope with supersonic stresses.

        1. hoola Silver badge

          In modern aerial warfare I thought that the traditional dogfight was pretty much dead as it was cheaper & easier to fire various missiles at your opponents. If you reach the gun stage then you had lost. I don't know what ammunition the guns have but invariably it is very limited.

          Assuming a missile is still cheaper than a drone or UAV in military parlance one would have thought that pilots/technicians playing shoot-em-up fighter games is a long way off.

          I suppose the only advantage comes in that you no longer need an expensive pilot in the air so if they do get shot down you no longer have to worry about recovery.

          1. CrazyOldCatMan

            raditional dogfight was pretty much dead as it was cheaper & easier to fire various missiles at your opponents

            I remember a sci-fi short story called "A hawk among the pidgeons". The basic plot was that a modern (for the 1980s) fighter[1] somehow gets thrown back through time to WW1.

            "Aha!" thinks the pilot - at a stroke I will kill the German biplanes - how hard can it be?

            The answer is - very hard. Not enough metal or heat for the missiles to lock onto and the speed difference is just too great for the gun to be useful. The most he can do is try and tear them apart with his slipstream and even that doesn't work.

            Just as he's about out of fuel, the time-rift opens again and he's back in his time.

            [1] And F104 Starfighter if I remember correctly. Surprised that the pilot survived..

  3. Andy Tunnah


    I know the usual thing is to make skynet jokes and be all gloomy about the rise of the machines, but I can't. This is just INCREDIBLE.

    How far AI is coming and mow well we're doing in automation just puts a big smile on my face. Technology feels like it moves along at a snail's pace nowadays, considering we've mastered everything; there's no more revolutions, just evolution. But AI feels like a new frontier where we can make massive impressive strides and I am LOVING it.

    1. Grunchy

      Re: Awesome

      Nice try, Hal

  4. Blackjack Silver badge

    Do it for real or scram

    Was it really that expensive to have both the AI and the human remote control a plane or drone each?

    A good programmed AI is always gonna be better than humans in a simulation but real World conditions won't be do accommodating.

    1. HildyJ Silver badge

      Re: Do it for real or scram

      I'd like to see it done for real too, but not in drones. A pilot in the plane can't maneuver as fast because of g forces. The AI will still win.Your suggesting drones for the test just points out that planes with pilots and pilot support systems are becoming obsolete.

      1. EricM

        There are differences between a simulation and reality

        Not necessarily

        While an AI can undoubtly pull G's up to the frame's limits and has faster per-se reaction speed it also will have to deal with real-world, unclear and contradictionary radar, microwave and optical sensor inputs to keep its situational awareness in an environment where electronic countermeasures are actively used and expected to evolve fast.

        That awareness is currently delivered by the simulation for free.

        So all this simulation currently shows is that the AI can play an elaborated videogame better than a human.

        I'm not sure how this would translate into a real-world battle, where the AI "pilots" , their capabilities, tactics and reactions are known to the adversary.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. LDS Silver badge

      Re: Do it for real or scram

      For example, how the AI got the other plane data (speed, heading, etc.)? From the sim data directly or having to parse simulated sensor data (radar, cams, FLIR,LIDAR, etc.)? Did they have to simulate a way for AI to track a plane outside sensors field of view?

      I'm quite sure that a computer fed with the proper data can be faster to find the right manoeuvre, the problem, like in self-driving cars, is to obtain and map properly those data.

      1. vtcodger Silver badge

        Re: Do it for real or scram

        NOT like self-driving cars. With cars the system must fail rarely and always fail safe. Were it not for the rarely and safe requirement, autonomous vehicles would already be flooding the roadways. With weapons systems, you can tolerate a few lethal (to the WS) mistakes.

    4. RPF

      Re: Do it for real or scram

      Having done it for real, I think the result would actually be even worse: the g-forces, the noise, the adrenaline all conspire against the pilot, which is why you train hard to condition yourself against these effects as much as possible; but they\re still a factor against top performance.

      I thought the AI planes were bloody good and Heron terrifyingly good at head-on gunnery (which is usually a complete no-no for obvious reasons).

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Anyone know where I can get a big EMP?

    1. Grunchy

      EMP hoax!

      It’s a book somebody wrote!

      1. Klimt's Beast Would

        Re: EMP hoax!

        What about ELP, or would Motörhead be more effective?

        1. Aussie Doc Bronze badge

          Re: EMP hoax!

          I'm old. ELO anyone?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: EMP hoax!

            ELO ... well that's certainly blue sky thinking!

            1. Steve K Silver badge

              Re: EMP hoax!

              Or Confusion?

    2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      You are probably better off learning about computer security, so that you can takeover the enemy's assets mid-war. Given the "state of the art" in that, I'd have thought that the outcome of WW3 was completely up in the air. (The side that *builds* the best drones may not end up being very important.)

  6. Pete 2 Silver badge


    > The fighter pilot battling on behalf of us humans ... losing 5-0 in one-on-one virtual combat.

    So the death delivery business is going through the same phases that chess went through, apropos artificial intelligence.

    First there is the scoffing "it will never beat a human"

    Then there is the grudging acknowledgement "well it might have some limited application ... in special circumstances

    After that comes denial "Ahhh, but it's too unreliable / expensive / slow / limited"

    Followed by the reality check "AI beats the world's best human"

    And the inevitable excuses "Yebbut it isn't really playing, it's just searching for past moves - played by humans"

    Finally the turnaround "Major contractor buys-out fledgling researchers, adopts technology and declares THIS IS THE FUTURE"

    1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

      Re: Chess


      "Finally the turnaround "Major contractor buys-out fledgling researchers, adopts technology and declares THIS IS THE FUTURE" "

      Shortly followed by

      "All air combat craft now fly with a 100% safety record"


      "The system became self aware at 2.37am PDT"

      <<currently stocking up his bunker with 40w phased pulse plasma rifles

  7. Julz Silver badge


    the video. The biggest difference seemed to be the 'AI' could shoot better. On each merge, the 'AI' did way more damage than the meatbag. Perhaps the lesson is to let an 'AI' be in charge of the gun.

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: Watching

      I would be more impressed if the software succeeded multiple times against multiple pilots on different platforms.

      As it is there is little to show its not a one trick pony, although it does stand as a proof of concept.

      1. jdiebdhidbsusbvwbsidnsoskebid

        Re: Watching

        Agreed. It's probably more complicated than this but for me, this story headline is merely "human loses to CPU opponent in video game". As someone who has often lost to the computer on Mario kart, this is just so much "meh".

    2. RPF

      Re: Watching

      This is true and was mentioned in the commentary

      But also IRL the enemy wreckage that's closing head-on at 1000+knots doesn't just miraculously disappear....

  8. chivo243 Silver badge

    How long until Ender's Game?

    Virtual war now, how long until the soldier's don't know their part of it?

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: How long until Ender's Game?

      Virtual war now, how long until the soldier's don't know their part of it? ..... chivo243

      Are you suggesting that soldiers know they are part of virtual wars, chivo243?

      I imagine if they knew that they would be absolutely furious .... and extremely dangerous.

  9. KBeee Bronze badge

    Bit of a "Dreadnaught" moment..

    ..when you realise all your hyper expensive fleets of State-of-the-Art planes are rendered useless against Next Generation pilotless planes that are available to anyone willing to pay or capable of building. And don't think "Only We!" are capable of building these things.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bit of a "Dreadnaught" moment..

      Problem is, big militaries don't recognize the dreadnought moment until they're getting defeated in actual battle, and the generals are forced to admit that they're still trying to fight the last war.

      1. ciaran

        Re: Bit of a "Dreadnaught" moment..

        In the next big war, all the aircraft carriers, AWACS and aerial refuelling tankers will be out of action at the end of the first day. GPS will be inoperative, and battlefield wireless communications will be jammed.

        Compare that to all the shiny stuff the militaries want...


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