Forget Self-Driving Cars—the Pentagon Wants Autonomous Ships, Choppers and Jets

From pilotless jets engaging in dogfights to huge undersea vessels ferrying troops, the Pentagon is pushing to increase the U.S. military’s use of automation.

Defense moves are outpacing commercial automation efforts in the air, on the ground and beneath the waves as officials seek to counter American adversaries’ technological advances, according to current and former national-security and industry officials. That progress—highlighted in cockpits managed primarily by computers, totally autonomous helicopters and automated aerial-refueling tankers—is likely to show up in future civilian aircraft, advanced air-traffic-control systems and a range of drone applications.

Skeptics worry automated systems sometimes reflect software developers’ desire to incorporate new capabilities without full testing. They point to examples of high-profile stumbles ranging from glitch-prone radio communication systems to software problems that have deprived pilots of adequate oxygen at the controls of jet fighters.

Unlike commercial automation, “there aren’t any regulators or outsiders to scrutinize Pentagon efforts,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a human-factors expert who teaches at the University of Southern California. “You really have to do your homework before integrating emerging new applications with older technology.”

But already, programs meant to supplement and eventually replace human operators are accelerating in every branch of the U.S. armed services.

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