Will Drones Ever Replace Fighter Jets?

Last updated November 28th, 2019
A fighter jet in the sky

The US Air Force is the number 1 user of drones bar none. And those next in line are all Air Force branches of some of the most powerful militaries in the world.

This hardly surprising; drones come with so many advantages that make them an absolute must have in the present circumstances.

Military organizations around the world operate hundreds of each military drone model available. And that trend looks set to continue as the capabilities of drones continue to advance.

What Are the Advantages of Drones Over Jets?

There are some undeniable advantages that come with using drones for military exercises, rather than using piloted fighter jets. These have been the major contributors to their growing popularity. Some of these advantages are:

They Save Lives

The first and most obvious advantage that comes with military drones is that they take away the danger posed to military personnel. These are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), meaning that there is no human pilot on board when they are deployed.

This means that no human lives are put directly put in harm’s way — on the flying side, at least — when these birds take to the skies headed for dangerous destinations.

Militaries all over the world cite this one reason as one of the most important when it comes to drone warfare — especially when there is need for reconnaissance and possible rescue.

They Are Relatively Low Cost

Another obvious advantage of using drones is the cost involved. Perhaps the best way to understand this concept, one would have to look at how much it takes to operate the standard fighter jet.

Simply put, operating a manned fighter jet is costly. Extremely costly.

A single F-35A jet costs almost $100 million and has an hourly operating cost of $28,455. The cost of running a single fighter jet for three hours will surpass what the majority of American households spend in a year.

Conversely, the average drone costs significantly less to purchase and even less to run over longer periods of time. They are cheaper to fuel, and cost less to maintain.

For example, an MQ-9A Reaper (Sometimes called the Predator B) costs $15.9 million per unit. It is a princely sum, but still a fraction of what a fighter jet costs.

As for the hourly cost of running a drone, that would depend on the specific drone being used. However, the larger armed systems like the Global Hawk cost about $15,000 per hour to run — just over half what it requires to run an F-35A.

They Present Low Risk

Drones are able to fly at altitudes that are lower than what traditional airplanes fly at because they are smaller and harder to detect. This smaller size makes them less liable to be at risk than a fighter jet.

Longer Operational Hours

If there is one thing that military unmanned aerial vehicles have over fighter jets, it is operational hours. Drones can simply keep going for longer.

Without a human pilot, drones can stay in operation for a lot longer than their manned counterparts. And there is no way around this fact, because there is nothing sensible about keeping a pilot cramped in a cockpit for more than a few hours.

Drones can remain in the air for over 24 hours, doing repetitive tasks with unwavering precision and no human error day and night, whether in darkness, fog, or broad daylight.

Fighter jet pilots don’t have that luxury.

High Accuracy

There is a reason why drones are favored for surgical strikes. That’s because they are accurate over large distances. Their pinpoint accuracy reduces the risk to civilians and surrounding infrastructure, and thus helps in accountability.

Given the increased scrutiny that drone warfare has come under due to reports of civilian casualties, this is one area that militaries are doubling down on.

Very Lethal

Drones are neither as armed nor as maneuverable as fighter jets. But those which are capable of unloading fire upon enemy targets are as capable as they need to be. This means that they are easier, less costly options that militaries can use to carry out strikes with minimal risks to military personnel.

They Are Excellent Spy Machines

Spying and reconnaissance is one of the most important aspects of modern warfare. Before the rise of drones, it was also one of the most dangerous, placing the lives of all those involved at risk if they were ever discovered.

Today, sophisticated stealth drones take away all the danger involved. Not only are they harder to notice than regular aircraft, in the event that they are noticed and shot down, they cost less to replace than a fighter jet and there’d be no human life that would have been lost from the cockpit.

Drones were used in spying and diversion years before they were equipped with modern weapons for combat. It also helps that they are easily deployed.

Speed of Deployment

Drones can be up and running significantly faster than manned aircrafts. And there are a variety of ways this can happen: some drones take off like aircrafts while others can be thrown into action by hand.

Time Savers

Because of their speed of deployment and rapid action, drones can greatly shorten the time required between conception and execution of a plan. They are always ready to be deployed.

The amount of time needed to get a pilot up to speed and fully trained to operate a drone is significantly less than the time required to train and deploy a fighter pilot.

What Are the Advantages of Fighter Jets over Drones?

There are many advantages that come with having a fully functional fleet of fighter jets, capable of launching and executing the most sophisticated missions from the skies.

That’s why no military is considered modern without these fighter jets. And despite the fact that military drone use is on the rise, fighter jets don’t seem to be going anywhere soon because of all the advantages they have over drones presently.

Some of these are:

Increased Capabilities

The human in the cockpit gives a vital edge to jets over drones. For example, despite all their capabilities, a drone cannot reach out to a human on the ground for more detailed intelligence. Drones are also incapable of capturing and securing enemy military personnel, abandoned hardware, and military bases.

Fighter jets are equipped to do all these because the human in the cockpit is capable of putting his expertise to good use.

Can Lead to Fewer Civilian Losses

The cost of drone warfare can best be summed up in civilian life and property lost. Granted, this is the same for any type of warfare, drones can potentially increase the numbers because of their inability to make independent judgments on whether to fire or not.

Generally Better Received by Civilians

For all the good they are used for, drones are still viewed negatively by both friendly and hostile populations. There is simply too much negative press tied to them.

On the other hand, fighter jets have been around long enough for the population to get used to, and they even take part in parades and celebrations on a regular basis.

Piloted by Better Trained Personnel

It takes a significant amount of time to get to the point where you are considered competent enough to man a $100 million dollar machine. It takes dedication and sacrifice, and all these results in pilots who are counted among the very best in the world.

Drone pilots, on the other hand, require less training and are considered less skilled than their counterparts who get to fly every day.

Harder to Hack

Drones can be hacked in a number of ways, and this occurs even in military situations. There have been cases where military drones were hacked and landed by enemy forces, as was the case in 2011 when Iran landed an American reconnaissance drone.

On the other hand, while hacking a manned aircraft is possible, it is easier said than done and usually requires hackers laying their hands on the hardware they intend to hack. Aviation systems are also constantly being upgraded to make it ever less likely that such an incident happens.

Harder to Shoot Down

Fighter jets travel close to the speed of sound — some even surpass that. It is very unlikely that a bullet or rocket from the surface is ever going to get close enough to make a hit.

The increased maneuverability of fighter jets, in the hands of a skilled pilot, makes it possible for a marked aircraft to make it back to base safely.

Is Military Drone Use on the Increase?

You can expect drones to become even more integral to modern warfare then they were just a few years ago.

According to The Drone Databook, a study released in 2019, there are at least 95 countries that maintain an active military drone program. This represents a 58% increase from over a decade ago.

According to the report there are over 21,000 military drones in active service (although the real number is likely to be much higher), and over 170 different types of drones being used by militaries all around the world.

Will Drones Ever Replace Fighter Jets?

As drone capabilities become more diverse and sophisticated, one could speculate if the need for fighter jets will vanish altogether.

It’s a legitimate question. But one that we would have to look far into the future for a possible answer.

We are more likely to see fighter jets and drones working together in swarms to increase military aerial capabilities many times over.

Efforts towards this end are already underway in the US military, for example. And we could soon wake up to a world where one fighter pilot takes off with two armed drones by on his flanks and under his command.

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