WASHINGTON — U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Wednesday that the Pentagon intends to conduct live trials pitting tactical aircraft controlled by artificial intelligence against human pilots in 2024.

The announcement comes three weeks after an AI algorithm defeated a human pilot in a simulated dogfight between F-16s, something Esper described as an example of the “tectonic impact of machine learning” for the Defense Department’s future.

“The AI agent’s resounding victory demonstrated the ability of advanced algorithms to outperform humans in virtual dogfights. These simulations will culminate in a real-world competition involving full-scale tactical aircraft in 2024,” Esper said in prepared remarks delivered to the department’s Artificial Intelligence Symposium.

The Aug. 20 test was the finale of the Pentagon research agency’s AI air combat competition.

The algorithm, developed by Heron Systems, easily defeated the fighter pilot in all five rounds that capped off a yearlong competition hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Heron’s AI system gained notoriety throughout the competition for its aggressiveness and the accuracy of its shot.

But the system wasn’t perfect. Heron often made an error in basic fighter maneuvers by turning away from enemy aircraft to where the AI thought the other aircraft would go. It was then unable to recover throughout the fights.

“There are a lot caveats and disclaimers to add in here,” Col. Dan Javorsek, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, said after the test, including that the AI had significant information that might not be available in an actual combat scenario.

Military officials have long eyed the potential for AI to control aircraft, whether as part of a “loyal wingman” setup where a number of systems are controlled by one pilot, or through taking existing systems and making them optionally manned.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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