The original 1996 movie Independence Day pitted American pilots and troops — and eventually the entire world — against an extraterrestrial threat armed with laser cannons and energy shields. Marine aviators, including Will Smith's character Capt. Steven Hiller, watch helplessly as their missiles disintegrate.
Nimble otherworldly fighters quickly pick off the F/A-18 fighter jets, killing most of the pilots. By the dramatic climax, very little has changed. Even after Hiller and David Levinson — played by Jeff Goldblum — succeed in disrupting the alien shields in a near-suicidal mission, the invaders wield considerable firepower and inflict heavy casualties.
But according to the December trailer for the sequel Independence Day: Resurgence, the American military did very little soul searching in the interceding two decades. "I spent 20 years trying to get us ready for this," Goldblum's Levinson says in the teaser as we see the first images of the new flying machines.
"We used our technology to strengthen our planet," he adds. "But it won't be enough."
Well, definitely not if there wasn't a new plan for fighting hostile aliens from outer space. If insanity is doing the same thing and hoping for a different result, the tactics on display are decidedly insane.
Despite the real-life Pentagon doubling down on drones, the advanced aerospace fighters of the new flick — with valuable pilots still in the cockpits — seem to have only moved the still-lopsided aerial battle outside the atmosphere.
To be sure, the aircraft in the trailer are clearly based on a certain reality.
The fictional jets share many physical features with depictions of the much-rumored Lockheed Aurora, the fictional F-19 stealth fighter and submissions for the U.S. Navy's F/A-XX program to replace the F-18. With no visible heads-up display in the cockpit and poor rear visibility, the pilots would have to rely on helmet-mounted targeting gear and complicated sensors like the troublesome F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
But the Pentagon is already moving in different directions for its so-called sixth generation of fighter jets. And the biggest change could be putting a machine in charge. While by no means perfect, drones offer major benefits over manned aircraft. Their computers brain don't get tired or hungry — except for fuel. Combined with mid-air aerial refueling, a pilotless plane could theoretically stay up in the air indefinitely.
More importantly, drones allow militaries to safely sequester the pilots away from the front lines and enemy defenses. Flying an advanced fighter jet is no cake walk and pilots are expensive to train … and hard to replace.
One would imagine Washington might take this into account when preparing for a future battle against malevolent space invaders. After the experiences from the first Independence Day, the Pentagon wouldn't be rushing to send its fliers back into an obvious meat grinder.
It's already a real-world consideration.
"Unmanned systems, particularly autonomous ones, have to be the new normal in ever-increasing areas," U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told attendees at the Sea-Air-Space 2015 Exposition. The F-35 "almost certainly will be the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly."
While the Pentagon has primarily flown drones on reconnaissance missions, the U.S. Air Force's Predators and Reapers have proven their worth as unmanned attackers. The Navy in particular as led the way for robotic planes to take over for traditional manned fighters.
In tests more than two years ago, Northrop Grumman's X-47B drone took off and landed from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. Boeing's artwork for the F/A-XX project shows an unmanned version. In April, the sailing branch showed off the X-47B linking up with an aerial tanker.
Six months later, Mabus named retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Frank Kelley as the first ever Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems. Kelly's office will oversee all of the service's work on drones, big and small, including any future work on the X-47B and its successors.
Though traditionally reticent of anything that could spell the end of the fighter pilot, the flying branch is beginning to acknowledge the idea of a broad unmanned future. But how far the Pentagon will be able to go in replacing pilots with robots isn't clear.
By relying on a video camera and other gear to "see," a drone operator generally has less understanding of exactly what's going on around the aircraft.
A fully independent computer might not fare any better. And there's always the potential danger of an enemy hacking into the controls, in any case.
But as computerized gear becomes more and more omnipresent, this will be a problem for manned aircraft, too. The Pentagon has admitted it's worried that even a simulated cyber attack could break its new F-35s.
With these various pros and cons, the future will likely be filled with a mix of piloted and robotic warplanes working together. And yet, the fighters in Independence Day: Resurgence — closer to a "seventh generation" — all have a person behind the controls.
Still, it's not surprising Hollywood can't stop sticking pilots in their movies. Like the Pentagon, movie studios have had difficulties presenting drones to the public. Critics and the public had a mixed response to Good Kill, a movie that tried to explore the real world issues of unmanned combat. Filmmakers will try again in 2016 with Eye in the Sky.
Blockbuster action movies, and much of science fiction in general, regularly deploy machines and rogue artificial intelligence as villains. Talk in Washington about drones that can operate on their own is often met with jokes about Skynet, the fictional autonomous defense network in the Terminator movies that goes nuts and tries to exterminate all human life.
The Pentagon's answer is to remind everyone that actual people still operate what it terms "remotely piloted aircraft."
"You will never hear me use the word ‘drone' and you'll never hear me use the term ‘unmanned aerial systems,'" then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army. Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters in 2014. "There is a man or woman in the loop."
Hollywood's luck making military equipment relatable to moviegoers is little better. The Transformers series — one of the few franchises to feature a "good" robotic army — was financially successful but critically panned. One reason? Because the characters — human and machine alike — were so bland and unlikable.
"Noisy, underplotted and overlong special effects extravaganza that lacks a human touch," is how review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes described the second of the films, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
In the same vein, it would be hard for Independence Day: Resurgence to evoke the same sense of tension and dire circumstances as its predecessor without swarms of underdog human pilots in harm's way … even if willfully putting them in such danger would be a crazy decision.
From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, War is Boring explores how and why we fight above, on, and below an angry world. Sign up for its daily email update here or subscribe to its RSS Feed here.