Navy finds perfect wingman for carrier pilots – AI
Move over, Maverick. AI software can land a plane on a carrier deck better than you.
Over 5,000 men and women crew each of America’s 11 aircraft carriers, but the U.S. Navy’s counting on AI to help them fight China. AI will bring carrier planes in for landings, fly unmanned tankers with fuel for combat planes, and even analyze the bug juice in the chow line.
Night carrier landings are dangerous feats of combat aviation. Americans think of the "Top Gun" movies starring Tom Cruise as Maverick, an intrepid Navy pilot who can land a 32,000-lb. F/A-18EF Superhornet on a 90,000-ton aircraft carrier in night, rain, wind and pitching seas.
Now the Navy has found out AI is a big, big help in bringing aircraft aboard. In real life, a form of AI called Precision Landing Mode has changed the art of carrier landings into science.
As you know, CVN-78, the USS Gerald R. Ford, is in the eastern Mediterranean deterring Iran (and others) during Israel’s security crisis over Gaza. Previously, the Ford was the first aircraft carrier to try out AI for Precision Landing Mode on the newest, young Navy pilots.
Although the new pilots were fully trained, the final step of completing several landings on the aircraft carrier is exceptionally difficult. "You’ll see the white knuckles, the shaky knees, and you can see the expression on the face of somebody who’s just landed on an aircraft carrier at night for the first time," said Capt. Dan Catlin, the commanding officer of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106, told U.S. Naval Institute News during the 2021 test.
According to Catlin, the final seconds of a carrier landing required pilots to make about 300 separate adjustments to the plane’s flight path. Engine power, angle of attack, position to centerline, you name it.
With the AI in the Precision Landing Mode, it was all different. The number of adjustments made by pilots dropped to single digits. The pilots were much more confident and the AI they used was "really making something that was supposed to be incredibly hard, actually a little bit of fun," Catlin concluded.
Of course, the Navy’s been investing in AI and automated parts of its landing systems long ago. You can’t risk a $70 million fighter plane and pilot without confidence and a lot of testing. However, the exciting breakthrough is processing speed and algorithms to build the large data models so AI can cope with cross winds, pitching decks and minute engine power settings during carrier landings.
Going forward, the Navy is embracing AI as a shipmate throughout the fleet. "If we have trust in autonomy, we can then make the move to truly artificial intelligence and in the future of the air wing," says Rear Admiral Steven Tedford, who runs unmanned programs and systems development for the Navy at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.
Already the Navy’s big MQ-25 Stingray drone has proven it can refuel other carrier aircraft and enhance satellite communications and reconnaissance for the aircraft carrier strike group. After 2026, all air wings will fly the Stingray drones. That’s a lot of AI.
Other systems like the Navy’s stealth F-35 fighters are bringing even more AI. The key is "using the equipment we have today but digitally advantaging it way more," explained Lockheed Martin CEO Jim Taiclet at the Hudson Institute on Oct. 4.
Teaming AI with human crews and commanders is still the preferred mode for military operations. But there’s no question that senior officers may come to rely on AI in the heat of battle, too. Generative AI could soon help commanders anticipate everything from enemy missile shot trajectories to weapons effects of air strikes.
Imagine an AI tool that can model the football team’s potential defensive plays before the quarterback throws. With AI, the Navy can stay one step ahead of enemy behavior in a major air and sea confrontation.
That’s you, China. The Pentagon said Oct. 17 that Chinese aircraft are aggressively intercepting American military planes all over the Pacific. Looks like the debut of AI in tactical management of combat air patrols and daily operations can’t come soon enough.
Don’t forget sailors on the chow line and in the wardrooms. Back in April, the Navy partnered with IBM to apply artificial intelligence to the food supply chain. IBM says organizations often use less than 10% of their supply chain data.
AI will help the Navy supply corps manage the flow of food from ice cream to the famous "bug juice," a fruit-flavored alternative to coffee and water often served aboard the carriers. (Lemon lime when I tasted it aboard USS Nimitz in San Diego years ago.)
Yes, the U.S. Navy will need every advantage to face down China in the Pacific. If it takes AI to flow the bug juice, get fuel to strike aircraft and bring the aircrews back aboard the carrier safely, I say full steam ahead.