"There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter. I'm one that's inclined to believe that." -- Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When Admiral Mullen uttered those words a few years ago, it struck fear in the hearts of America's defense contractors -- well, those other than Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), which builds the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. A world without manned fighter jets, after all, promises to be a world that won't need to buy Lockheed Martin F-16s fighters, Boeing (NYSE:BA) F/A-18 fighter bombers, or Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) EA-6B electronic warfare jets.
A brave new world...
Earlier this week, that world came one step closer, when Northrop's new X-47B prototype -- an armed, pilotless drone combat aircraft -- conducted the first-ever unmanned landing on an aircraft carrier off the Virginia coast. It's starting to become apparent that we really will one day have entire squadrons of drone fighter jets patrolling the skies, without a pilot among them.
And yet, this poses a problem.
Pilotless combat aircraft, unless they're given full autonomy to conduct missions on their own, a la Skynet...
...have a built-in Achilles' heel, in that to control them, one must maintain communication with them. This communications link, though, is vulnerable to hacking by bad guys. Presumably, the farther away the drone, the weaker the signal from "home" -- and the easier it will be for an enemy to disrupt our military's ability to control its drones.
...and how to survive in it
So, how does a military protect its unmanned aerial vehicles from hackers, and maintain control over pilotless drones in combat? The answer may be the solution to Lockheed's, Boeing's, and Northrop's problems.
"Most studies indicate that we are a little overly invested in [drone] capabilities for permissive environments and perhaps under-invested in capabilities for the high-end fight," laments one U.S. Air Force report. While General Atomics' Predators and Reapers may operate fine "droning" along uncontested airspace in Afghanistan, most UAVs today would be vulnerable when operating in an "anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment" such as Chinese or Russian airspace. They'd be equally incapable of defending themselves from hostile anti-aircraft fire, and from hostile hackers, who may attempt to jam communication with, or even take over control of pilotless drones.
According to a report on Flightglobal.com, USAF has been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how to run drones in such "contested environments".
One solution to this problem might be upgrading air defense systems on drones, and hardening their communications to resist jamming and hacking. Another might be to build "optionally manned" aircraft -- full-size fighter jets that could be piloted, or pilotless, depending on the theater in which they're called upon to operate. A third option might be to send a sort of piloted "mothership" along with a squadron of drones, to control and protect them from longer-distance jamming attempts.
And a fourth... might be to resign oneself to the possibility that drones may always be vulnerable to jamming -- and acknowledge that the world really hasn't changed all that much. Maintaining -- and building, and buying -- a mix of piloted, and pilotless aircraft may still be necessary.
Therein may lie salvation for the revenue streams of the piloted fighter jet manufacturers.
Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.