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byKris Osborn- Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) China’s move to introduce a two-seat variant of its J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter raises what could be called one of the defining discussions or debates of our time, regarding the scope, utility, or limits of artificial intelligence.

Would an extra pilot, which might add weight and additional external contours to the aircraft, therefore potentially reducing the stealth properties of the jet, offer tactical advantages which advanced computing technologies cannot?

Artificial-intelligence-enabled autonomy, computer processing speeds and their attendant ability to organize and analyze data in real time have all progressed so quickly that some wonder about the extent to which most combat aircraft may have unmanned capabilities. So much has already been said about the emerging Air Force sixth-generation fighter, which will reportedly incorporate unmanned capability. As far back as several years ago, former Navy Secretary Ray Maybus raised the possibility that the F-35 fighter jet could wind up being the last “manned” fighter ever to exist.

Computer algorithms enabling near real-time analytics have informed some experiments and simulations wherein computerized, unmanned 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.

This might be why much of the prevailing wisdom, when it comes to weapons development, is based upon the concept of man-machine interface, something which could easily be characterized as a way to optimize operational functionality by essentially leveraging or harnessing the best of both in support of one another. Machines acquire, analyze, process and transmit data at speeds and in ways humans of course never could, yet humans can draw upon this to perform the kind of subjective analysis of multiple, interwoven, non-mathematical factors unique to the human mind.

So will there be an F-14-like two-seat U.S fight-generation stealth fighter jet? Who knows?

Two-Seat Chinese 5th Gen J-20

A twin-seat variation of China's J-20 stealth fighter jet and a J-20 version equipped with a domestically made engine has been spotted for the first time in official videos recently released by its developer and the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), only days before the tenth anniversary on Monday of the aircraft's maiden flight.

A new, first of its kind, twin-seat variant of the Chinese J-20 has emerged, introducing the world’s first “stealthy” dual-seat fighter.

The new aircraft was highlighted by the PLAAF, according to a Chinese newspaper, which added that the stealth fighter appears to be operating with a Chinese-built WS-10C engine.

“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 writes, 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.  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 decisionmaking capability could certainly bring a tactical advantage. While human eyes might not necessarily see and farther, clearer or better than advanced cameras, another person might introduce new variations of intelligence analysis.

This would be of particular relevance today, given the vastly increasing amount of information that can be gathered, organized, and transmitted by fast computer processing and advanced AI-enabled algorithms. Simply put, the volumes of information available to pilots are now exponentially larger than was previously the case. Computers, sensors, and AI can of course gather, analyze and present otherwise separated data variables for human decisionmakers, yet how can all of the combat-relevant information be decided upon by one pilot potentially immersed in a dangerous combat engagement. Computing can perform greater amounts of the necessary gathering, processing, organizing, and analyzing of time-sensitive information, yet they at the moment likely lack an ability to make certain complex or nuanced decisions such as those which might arise in combat.

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. 

Conversely, however, the same kind of technically-based argument could be made against any need to add another person into a stealth fighter cockpit. The Air Force, for instance, recently flew an aircraft with an AI-enabled computer itself as a copilot, and unmanned fighter jets capable of dogfighting, advanced maneuvers, and surveillance have been developing for years. While computers can ease the cognitive burden placed upon potentially overloaded pilots, they can often fall short when it comes to certain more subjective nuances or variables fundamental to decision-making.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.