Not so long ago there was a good chuckle to be had in thinking about how the PC on your desk could outperform the room full of big metal cases with flashing lights and whirly tape reels that was the supercomputer of days gone by.

Today, of course, that desktop computer is becoming another dinosaur – and the laptop that replaced it looks vulnerable to the phone in your pocket, which packs enough punch to run the original Moon missions.

XQ-58A Valkyrie

Source: US Air Force

Autonomous attritable aircraft could change face of modern warfare

The critical, complicated calculations involved in modern warfare may need a bit more than that – but maybe a more rugged laptop, not a mainframe computer. Network a few of those laptops together and the mainframe really does look like a fossil.

The generals and politicians who plan air forces are starting to recognise that this technology revolution could soon turn their exotic fighters and bombers into T Rex with afterburners: fierce, for sure, but yesterday’s lord of the battlefield.

As we learn this week in our special report on attritable aircraft, US defence planners with an eye on advanced Chinese weaponry and the vast Pacific area of operations are developing unmanned air vehicles that threaten to meet or exceed the capabilities of cherished traditional programmes.

Computing power, modern sensors and manufacturing technology may soon make drones the unquestionably superior option. At a fraction of the per-unit acquisition cost of a fifth-generation fighter, such machines will soon, for some missions, outperform crewed options for range, payload, speed and survivability, while slashing the bill for pilots, training, maintenance and basing. So generals with a love of ribbons, braid and brass bands had best decide now to ditch emotional attachment to their Billy Mitchell air forces and focus on the challenges of the 21st Century.

But the mindset shift needed goes way deeper than merely replacing a human pilot with a computer. We – all of us, and not just the generals and politicians we charge with our protection – need to think more broadly about combat and its consequences.

New technology may save money, which is good. It may also keep our people out of harm’s way, also good. But the new generation of drones will soon be flying with the sensors and “brain power” to decide, on our behalf, what – or who – is a target and whether or not to kill it.

This sort of artificial intelligence is rapidly becoming science reality. We have yet to decide who is in charge.