The major nations of the world have been in an air-to-air arms race since the first fighter pilots fired pistols at each other in World War I. From machine gun mounts to jet engines to stealth technology, the race has always been about making the human in one cockpit more lethal than the other.
It now appears that the race is moving to an entirely new stage where the goal is to make autonomous drones that can kill while the pilot is either in another cockpit or an office far away. While the manned F-22 Raptor is still the king of the roost and F-35 pilots are gearing up for their combat debut, these are the unmanned fighters in development to replace them in the future:
1. BAE's Taranis
The British Taranis UCAV flies during testing. (Photo: BAE Systems)
The Taranis unmanned combat aerial vehicle has ruffled a lot of feathers in Europe where large groups oppose autonomous weapons of war. While Taranis will likely be capable of full autonomy, the Ministry of Defense and British Aerospace Engineering have said the unmanned combat aerial vehicle will function as a "man in the loop" system. A human decides what's a target and the system engages approved targets.
Taranis is primarily a strike aircraft, meaning that it goes after ground targets. But it's capable of fighting enemy planes and could fly from Britain to continents outside of Europe with limited input from pilots and crew.
2. F-16s (Yeah, those F-16s)
An F-16 Fighting Falcon flies near Iraq. If the Pentagon gets its way, this same aircraft could fly without its pilot in the "Loyal Wingman" program. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby)
America's current entry for an autonomous fighter now that the X-47B will most likely become a flying gas station is actually an old airframe — the F-16 Falcon.
The "Loyal Wingman" program calls for upgrading fourth-generation aircraft like F-16s with autonomous controls, software and hardware upgrades that will let computers fly the jet. Then human pilots in F-35s or F-22s would be able to fight with a few drone F-16s and F/A-18 Hornets backing them up.
The Navy is still interested in developing a next-generation unmanned fighter, but that's far in the future, while unmanned F-16s could be fighting within a few years.
3. DRDO AURA
India's Autonomous Unmanned Research Vehicle is a technology demonstrator under development by the country's Defense Research and Development Organisation. The final weapon is designed to carry its weapons internally and be capable of self-defense, reconnaissance, and striking ground targets.
The exact level of "self-defense" capability the AURA will have has not yet been announced, so this could be a ground-attack drone with limited air-to-air capability. The program appears to be behind schedule but was initially slated for a 2015 prototype and a 2020 completion.
4. Sharp Sword
China's Sharp Sword UCAV conducts a taxiing test. (Photo: Youtube/arronlee33)
China's Sharp Sword is so wrapped in secrecy that no one's sure what its ultimate mission will be. It has gone through some iterations and prototypes, but a blended-wing design that flew in late-2013 is the best known version.
It appears that China's Sharp Sword is based on Russia's mothballed "Skat" UCAV which has languished for years. China's primary need for a stealth UCAV is for naval operations in disputed regions of the South and East China Sea.
That means it will need something to defend itself against fighters from U.S. carriers. If it doesn't get integrated air-to-air weapons, expect it to act as a sensor for ground-based defenses and possibly take on an anti-ship role.
The Dassault nEUROn is a Pan-European UCAV designed for strike capabilities and technology testing. (Photo: Aerolegende CC BY-SA 3.0)
In addition to the UCAVs discussed above, there are a number of new drones designed to surveil and strike ground targets. Russia's Skat was canceled, but its technology is incorporated into a new platform developed by Sukhoi, the same company that makes the PAK FA T-50.
Countries in the European Union, including Britain, are working together to develop a new UCAV for hitting ground targets that is based on the Taranis and the nEUROn, a UCAV produced by France; Italy; Sweden; Spain; Greece and Switzerland.