The US Department of Defense (DoD) is to pit real-world fighters controlled by human pilots against aircraft flown by artificial intelligence in 2024, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said at the DOD Artificial Intelligence Symposium and Exposition.

Speaking at the event, Esper said: “As an example of the tectonic impact of machine learning on the future of warfighting, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently conducted its third and final F-16 combat simulation between an AI-controlled system and an experienced Air Force fighter pilot.”

The real-world dogfights will be the culmination of work by DARPA which recently saw an AI-controlled F-16 beat an experienced US Air Force (USAF) pilot in a series of simulated dogfights.

Esper added: “The AI agent’s resounding victory demonstrated the ability of advanced algorithms to out-perform humans in virtual dogfights. These simulations will culminate in a real-world competition involving full-scale tactical aircraft in 2024.”

In DARPA’s AlphaDogfight, an AI built by Heron Systems beat a human F-16 pilot 5-0 following a number of AI vs AI simulated dogfights.

AlphaDogfight was conducted as part of DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) designed to increase trust in combat autonomy, and demonstrate the utility of AI and autonomous systems as the US envisions a future where crewed aircraft are supported autonomous systems.

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Explaining ACE, DARPA said: “In a future air domain contested by adversaries, a single human pilot can increase lethality by effectively orchestrating multiple autonomous unmanned platforms from within a manned aircraft.

“This shifts the human role from single platform operator to mission commander. In particular, ACE aims to deliver a capability that enables a pilot to attend to a broader, more global air command mission while their aircraft and teamed unmanned systems are engaged in individual tactics.”

Although the simulated dogfight presented a limited guns-only scenario more akin to a WWII dogfight, DARPA’s Justin ‘Glock’ Mock said the trial showed the agency had ‘AI that works’.

At the time of the trial, DARPA’s ACE programme manager USAF Lieutenant Colonel Dan “Animal” Javorsek said: “Just because the outcome went the way it did today, it does not mean that the AI wasn’t latching onto some weird digital artefact that we weren’t thinking about or considering, and that’s what was giving them an advantage.

“There were certainly some peculiar behaviours in the engagement.”