Kendall, Secretary of the US Air Force, flies in the cockpit of an AI-controlled plane

The Secretary of the United States Air Force, Frank Kendall, traveled on Friday in the cockpit of a fighter plane that flew over the desert in california and was controlled by artificial intelligence.

Last month, Kendall announced his plans to fly an AI-controlled F-16 to the US Senate Appropriations Committee's defense panel, while speaking about the future of air warfare relying on autonomously operated drones. .

On Friday, the Air Force's top leader pressed ahead with his plans, achieving what could be one of the biggest advances in military aviation since stealth aircraft were introduced in the early 1990s.

Kendall flew to Edwards Air Force Base, the same desert facility where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, to see and experience AI flight in real time.

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The X-62A VISTA aircraft, an experimental Air Force F-16 AI-enabled fighter aircraft, takes off Thursday, May 2, 2024, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The flight, with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall riding in the front seat, serves as a public statement of confidence in the future role of AI in air combat. The military plans to use this technology to operate an unmanned fleet of 1,000 aircraft. (AP Photo/Damián Dovarganes)

After the flight, Kendall spoke with the Associated Press about the technology and the role it will play in aerial combat.

“It's a security risk not to have it. Right now, we have to have it,” the secretary said.

The Associated Press and NBC were granted permission to observe the secret flight with the agreement that neither would report on the matter until the flight was completed, due to security concerns.

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Frank Kindall in the cabin

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall sits in the front cockpit of an X-62A VISTA aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, California, Thursday, May 2, 2024. The flight of the modified F-16 controlled by Artificial Intelligence is serving as a public statement of confidence in the future role of AI in air combat. The military plans to use this technology to operate an unmanned fleet of 1,000 aircraft. Arms control experts and humanitarian groups worry that AI could one day take lives autonomously and are seeking greater restrictions on its use. (AP Photo/Damián Dovarganes)

The AI-controlled F-16 is called Vista and flew at Kendall in maneuvers that reached more than 550 mph, putting pressure on his body of nearly five times the force of gravity.

Flying alongside Vista and Kendall was a human-piloted F-16, and the two planes raced within 1,000 feet of each other performing twists and turns in an effort to force their opponent into a place of submission.

Kendall smiled as he exited the cabin after the hour-long flight, saying he saw enough to trust artificial intelligence technology to decide whether to fire weapons during a war.

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Frank Kendall's Cabin

This image from remote video released by the U.S. Air Force shows Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall during his experimental flight inside the cockpit of an X-62A VISTA autonomous fighter jet over Edwards Air Force Base. , California, on Thursday, May 2, 2024. AI Controlled Flight serves as a public statement of confidence in the future role of AI in air combat. (AP Photo/Damián Dovarganes)

Many oppose the idea of ​​computers making that decision, fearing that AI could one day drop bombs on people without consulting humans.

The same people who oppose AI-powered war machines also seek greater restrictions on their use.

One of the groups seeking stronger restrictions is the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“There are serious and widespread concerns about ceding life-and-death decisions to sensors and software,” the group warned, adding that autonomous weapons “are an immediate cause for concern and demand an urgent international political response.”

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AI Dogfight

An AI-enabled Air Force F-16 fighter jet, left, flies alongside an adversary F-16, as both planes race within 1,000 feet of each other, trying to force their opponent into vulnerable positions, the Thursday, May 2, 2024. , over Edwards Air Force Base, California. The flight serves as a public statement of confidence in the future role of AI in aerial combat. The military plans to use this technology to operate an unmanned fleet of 1,000 aircraft. (AP Photo/Damián Dovarganes)

Still, Kendall says human oversight will always be in play when weapons are considered.

The Air Force plans to have a fleet of more than 1,000 AI-operated drones, with the first operational by 2028.

In March, the Pentagon said it was looking to develop new aircraft guided by artificial intelligenceoffering two contracts for several private companies to compete against each other to obtain.

The Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) project is part of a $6 billion program that will add at least 1,000 new drones to the Air Force. The drones will be designed to deploy alongside human-piloted aircraft and provide cover, acting as escorts with full weapons capabilities. Drones could also act as scouts or communications hubs, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

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Frank Kendall outside the booth

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall smiles after a test flight of the X-62A VISTA aircraft against a human-crewed F-16 aircraft in the skies over Edwards Air Force Base, California, Thursday, May 2024. The flight in the VISTA, controlled by Artificial Intelligence, serves as a public statement of confidence in the future role of AI in aerial combat. The military plans to use this technology to operate an unmanned fleet of 1,000 aircraft. (AP Photo/Damián Dovarganes)

Companies bidding on the contract include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Anduril Industries.

Cost reduction is one of the elements of AI that attracts the Pentagon to pursue the project.

In August 2023, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said the deployment of AI-powered autonomous vehicles would provide “small, smart, cheap and numerous” expendable units to the US military, helping to reshape the “too slow shift in military innovation.” US”.

But the idea is not to fall too far behind China, which has modernized its air defense systems, which are much more sophisticated and put manned aircraft at risk when they get too close.

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Drones have the potential to disrupt such defense systems and could be used to jam them or provide surveillance to crews.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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