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The first images of the much anticipated 2-seat J-20 have emerged in a blitz of news reports, a development which for the first time shines a light on new dimensions of Chinese 5th-generation stealth fighter modernization.
Reports in The Drive, Air Force Magazine, Shepard Media and the Chinese-government-backed Global Times all show images of the new aircraft, long rumored to be in development by the People’s Liberation Army - Air Force.
Explaining that the new two-seat J-20 will likely be referred to as a J-20B, J-20AS or J-20S, the Drive says the pictures of a two-seat “tandem cockpit” J-20 in yellow primer paint emerging from Chengdu Aerospace Corporation’s plant and flight test airfield.
What does this mean? A 5th-generation stealthy “top gun”-like F-14 Tomcat? Maybe. However, unlike the famous 1980s era Tomcat which emerged prior to the large-scale explosion of AI-enabled computing, a 5th-gen fighter carrying a two-man crew raises some interesting questions and dynamics. The F-14 Tomcat came to exist well in advance of today’s AI-empowered sensing, computing, targeting, networking and information analysis.
At the beginning of 2021, the Chinese Global Times newspaper quoted unnamed military analysts citing the merits of a two-seat J-20.
“The twin-seat variation of the J-20 could be used for electronic warfare, command of wingman drones or bombing, and the domestic engine means the J-20 is no longer reliant on Russian engines,” the Chinese government-backed Global Times stated in the previous report, citing military analysts.
The addition of a second seat to the 5th-Gen stealth fighter presents some interesting questions, as it does potentially add new decision-making variables to air combat such as drone coordination, EW, or intelligence analysis in the air.
J-20 2-Seat Advantages
Should connectivity be lost, jammed, disabled or compromised in a combat situation, command and control could at least temporarily disappear, creating a circumstance wherein having an extra set of human eyes, observational faculties and decision making capability could certainly bring a tactical advantage. While human eyes might not necessarily see any farther, clearer or better than advanced cameras, another person might introduce new variations of intelligence analysis.
Perhaps a second pilot, or aviator, could oversee the operation of nearby drones, analyze and decide upon an interwoven tapestry of threat information, or coordinate communication with nearby air and ground assets should the main pilot be engaged in pressing combat tasks?
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J-20 Manned-Unmanned Teaming
Certainly the prevailing wisdom regarding manned-unmanned teaming seems to indicate that warfare effectiveness is best served by an optimal blend of high-speed, AI-enabled sensors and computers along with faculties and attributes unique to human cognition.
Man-machine interface, as it's called, can synergize more subjective variables and attributes associated with human decision making with high-speed, data analysis and organization. Certainly when it comes to gathering, organizing and performing certain kinds of data analysis, high-speed, AI-empowered computing and information processing performs exponentially better than humans, yet computers may not yet be able to approximate more subjective phenomena less calculable or measurable by mathematically-oriented computer algorithms.
Dynamic human decision making offers attributes far superior to anything machines can interpret in many respects. Combining both, therefore, seems to be the consensus among leading Pentagon weapons developers.
Therefore, could a two-man crew enabled J-20 introduce double the amount of man-machine interface potential possible in the sky? Perhaps the vast volumes of information made available by advanced sensing generates so much data which, even if organized, streamlined and analyzed by computers, may best be utilized by more than one human decision-maker in the air?
However, the -enabled computer itself as a copilot, and unmanned fighter jets capable of dogfighting, advanced maneuvers, and surveillance have been developing for years.
It may be that the U.S. Air Force’s experiment last year using a human pilot in tandem with an AI-enabled computerized co-pilot offers the best option, given that so much information can now be gathered, analyzed, streamlined and transmitted in accurate and highly relevant ways without needing human intervention. Maybe so much can be done effectively by computers in terms of matching threats against a database library, analyzing prior war scenarios to find the best weapon for a particular scenario, or assessing navigational, weather and ground target information in relation to one another in milliseconds, that having a human supported by a computerized AI-pilot may be the best approach.
The AI algorithm, called ARTUu, flew along with a human pilot on a U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, performing tasks that would “otherwise be done by a pilot,” an Air Force report from 2020 about the development stated. “ARTUu’s primary responsibility was finding enemy launchers while the pilot was on the lookout for threatening aircraft, both sharing the U-2’s radar,” the Air Force report said.
Computer algorithms enabling near real-time analytics have informed some experiments and simulations wherein drone fighter jets prevailed in dogfights against human pilots, or at least performed successfully in many respects. Therefore, given technological progress, why would an extra person be added at a time when humans are, if anything, increasingly being removed or decreased from operations? Machines are increasingly performing more vital combat functions faster than humans can, increasing the likelihood that more drone fighter jets will emerge in the future.
The thrust of the debate or discussion, it seems clear, is grounded in the extent to which attributes unique to human cognition can be closely approximated or even replicated by machines? Many say . . . never completely.
How can mathematically-engineered computer algorithms address, express or analyze subjective phenomena such as human feelings, intuition, or elements of intent? Humans are composed of a delicate, complex, and still somewhat mysterious mixture of thoughts, feelings, and psychological complexities, many of which simply might not be calculable by machines.
Many kinds of fast-changing dynamics, particularly those involving concepts or more subjectively determined variables, are at least at the moment best left to humans. For instance, to what extent could a computer discern “feelings” or “intent” as they may pertain to a combat engagement. Perhaps a pilot gets scared and makes an abrupt, unanticipated move? Can even the best AI-capable algorithms make sense of all of these kinds of phenomena? Particularly as they collide with one another? Many of these kinds of more subjective challenges may be much better addressed by humans.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.