The top Air Force officer for deep strike missions said yesterday that so far he has seen no advantage in moving toward an unmanned system as the service’s next generation long-range bomber.

Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, chief of Air Force Global Strike Command, told reporters that unmanned aircraft provide a valuable asset in terms of reconnaissance, communications platforms and at keeping "eyes in a certain area," but are less proven in carrying out long-range bombing missions into hostile airspace.

"I have not seen a good argument that in terms of a global strike mission, the mission that is about 30 hours, that has two crew members or more, that there is any significant advantage to that platform being unmanned," Kowalski said at the Air Force Association conference at National Harbor just outside Washington.

The Air Force views the development of a next-generation bomber as a top priority along with the KC-46A tanker and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, told reporters Tuesday (Defense Daily, Sept. 21). The Air Force has begun development of a new deep strike capability and is designing in the possibility of an unmanned option.

Kowalski said the Air Force would have to reach a "comfort level" with turning over a potentially half-a-billion dollar plane to an unmanned system capable of carrying out complex missions and returning safely.

"Are we sure enough in our modeling and simulation and our artificial intelligence and the devices that we can pull together, that we can, with confidence, have a half-a-billion airplane that consistently comes back to a U.S. base?" he said, and can be relied on in an "extremely complex and chaotic environment."

"We are designing this airplane to go into denied airspace. That is very different from what we ask our unmanned aircraft to do right now," he said.

"I think there is more development that needs to happen in remotely piloted aircraft," he added. "I am not particularly invested either way, but right now I’m just not certain I’ve seen the data that convinces me."