When speaking to children, I’m occasionally asked by a kid with coke-bottle-glasses: “Can I be a pilot with these glasses?” “Maybe not,” I answer, “but there are other amazing things you can do.”

I then explain how each one must find the field in which he, or she, can excel.

While my set of skills fit the requirements for being a pilot, there are other challenges beyond my reach.

Only a century since mankind took to the sky, we are still amazed we can actually do it. Approaching the CH-53 helicopter (“Yasur” in Hebrew), I would always wonder, “How in the world does this thing fly?” and sometimes added out loud: “You’re a genius, Igor!” (referring to Igor Sikorsky, the founder of Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation).

Exaltation of the ability to fly, and the excitement and danger involved, has led to the over-glorification of pilots as an extraordinary breed. They are “the best of the best.” In Israel, it has been impressed in public consciousness with the slogan: “The best to aviation.”

The image of the Israeli pilot is carefully burnished at the top of an organizational pyramid which serves and supports him, sustained by actions and messages, ranging from dress code to ethical codes of conduct.

However, we are now moving into a different era.

With the introduction of autonomous machines and growing dominance of nonkinetic capabilities such as cyberwarfare, our old fashioned images of excellence will surely be recalibrated.

Robots are increasingly involved in all aspects of life. Not only do we have automated workers to improve safety and boost capacity, but machines with artificial intelligence that can perform complicated tasks. As in many fields, military applications are in the lead, with a multitude of unmanned platforms replacing human operators.

Besides being safe and efficient, robots allow mass deployment, continuous operation and persistence in/over a location.

Targets are becoming more and more “time sensitive” and fleeting. This leads to an ever increasing need for continuous presence to insure being “in the right place at the right time.”

The challenge is twofold – the more platforms and sensors, the greater the abundance of data and the need to control, process and “find the needle in the haystack.”

This is not an article about far-fetched futuristic technology. Autonomous robots are a natural evolvement of contemporary technology. Actually, the biggest evolution ahead is conceptual.

When will we agree to fly on a transatlantic flight without a pilot in the cockpit? How confident are we about allowing autonomous killing machines to roam the skies, and are we sure the enemy won’t cyber-jack them and use them against us? The more advanced our technology, the fewer people will be involved in its operation. We must rethink the way we structure our images of excellence, and invest in properly educating the next generation of professionals. These techno-warriors will need to possess an array of valuable skills, as well as strong core values, for in their hands will lie greater destructive power.

When screening recruits, we will allocate the best and the brightest to professions that require the most complex set of skills.

We will still depend on our brave brothers and sisters who engage in direct combat, putting their lives on the line for the rest of us, and they will always deserve our utmost admiration and gratitude. But, as technology advances we will also depend on a new version of professional who will control and manage the vast number of unmanned vehicles on which our country’s defense will depend.

A “hero” is someone extraordinary and remarkable, who is admired and emulated for his noble qualities and achievements.

We certainly may commend techno-warriors as heroes.

There are other effects and dimensions to be analyzed. Techno-warriors, fighting from the safety of remote command posts, will still be susceptible to the psychological effects of combat. They will see, hear and understand the effects of using the deadly tools at their disposal.

On the other hand, physical detachment from the battlefield may diminish sensitivity to cultural nuances and lead to one-dimensional target counting instead of understanding and cracking the rival system. Additionally, painless "tele-warfare” may allow political leaders to freely apply military force, saved thus far as a last resort. The paradoxical global result may be more wars and bloodshed.

In the IDF, much thought is being invested in examining these issues, but decision-makers may tend, even subconsciously, to impede revolutionary progress as an act of self-preservation. All aspects of the transition to unmanned platforms should be discussed openly and lead to changes in the physical and cultural structure of our force.

The writer is a former Israel Air Force pilot and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd, an Israel-based company that focuses on bridging cultural gaps in promotion of international cooperation.



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