This scenario is intended to illustrate the role artificial intelligence will play in the near future. Please let me know if you like it, and I will provide more scenarios that educate and entertain.

Twenty-two operational missions are impossible, though USAF Brigadier General Andrew Martin while looking at his handheld tablet-phone. As his driverless car parked in his assigned space at Nellis Air Force Base, Martin reflected on his early beginnings in drone warfare. I don’t know how we pulled it off. General Martin’s thoughts were widely shared by other drone crewmembers, who served back in 2015.

Although not widely known to the public, the U.S. drone fleet was stretched to its breaking point in 2015. The Air Force had enough MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones in 2015 but lacked the trained personnel to carry out the Pentagon’s demand for 65 drone combat air patrols or CAPs. Each CAP, or “orbit,” consisted of four drone aircraft and associated crew. The Pentagon either did not understand or refused to understand the situation. The doubling of pay for drone crews gave grim testimony that they truly did not understand the problem. In 2015, operating a single drone mission 24/7 required 82 personnel, including flight and ground crew. It was not just a lack of crews. Clarifying the issue was nearly impossible, given the ambiguous drone chain of command. In addition, to drone missions commanded by Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) added even more to the list.

Since 9/11, JSOC, based in Fayetteville, N.C., grew tenfold to approximately 25,000. However, unlike the CIA, JSOC maintained a level of obscurity that even the CIA envied. For example, the SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011 were part of JSOC. However, that rarely came up in the media. In addition, JSOC was given authority by the president to select individuals for its kill list. This meant that JSOC did not require permission to assassinate individuals they deemed a threat to U.S. security. In theory, the Pentagon should have been calling all the shots, but for “reasons of national security,” high-level military leaders in the Pentagon did not know the day-to-day missions ordered by the CIA and JSOC. When it came to drone CAPs in 2015, the Pentagon, CIA, and JSOC all went silent while secretly pursuing their own agendas, oblivious to the USAF’s capability to carry out the drone missions.

However, the shortage of drone crews became a non-issue by 2025, when General Atomics’ MQ-10 Reaper went into service. The MQ-10 Reaper was similar to its predecessor, the MQ-9 Reaper, in many respects. When first introduced by the USAF in 2007, the MQ-9 Reaper made the Predator, officially the MQ-1, look like a weak sibling. Although the Reaper was controlled by the same ground systems used to control Predators (MQ-1s), the Reaper was the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. The Reaper’s 950 horsepower (712 kW) turboprop engine was almost ten times more powerful than the Predator’s 115 horsepower (86 kW) piston engine. This allowed the Reaper to carry 15 times more ordnance and cruise at almost three times the speed of the MQ-1. Although the MQ-9 had some capability for autonomous flight operations, they still required a crew and support techs equivalent to the MQ-1. Weapon’s release from an MQ-9 was still under crew control. As capable as the MQ-9 was, it woefully lagged behind the most advanced manned fighters and bombers. The introduction of the MQ-10s changed all that, and “bugs” that plagued early MQ-10 deployments were now just tech manual footnotes. Still, even with the additional MQ-10s, the command for done CAPs outpaced the USAF’s capability. Apparently, there were still a lot of enemy combatants to kill.

Martin was getting out of his vehicle just as his tablet-phone rang. He could see from the tablet-phone ID that it was a call from the Warfare Center base commander, Major General Rodney.

Martin touched the answer button on his tablet-phone. “General Martin.”

In his earbud, he heard General Rodney’s strained voice, “General, are you on the base?”

“Yes, Sir, just pulled in.”

“I need to see you ASAP.”

“Yes, Sir. I’m on my way.”

Martin was on cordial terms with Rodney, who became the base commander in 2023. Martin knew something was up. The Rodney’s strained voice peaked Martin’s anxiety. Normally, Martin would only report to Rodney at the weekly staff meeting. Whatever it was, Martin knew it was urgent and walked briskly to the Command Center building. Rodney’s office was one floor up from his. He checked in at the front desk and quickly went to the elevator. As soon as the elevator door opened, Martin walked in and pressed four, the top floor of the building. Within a minute, he was at General Rodney’s reception desk.

Staff Sergeant Brown saluted Martin and said, “General Rodney will see you now.” Martin returned the salute and knocked on the General’s door.

The General beckoned Martin to enter.

Martin entered and saluted the General. The General returned the salute.

“We may have a major issue,” said Rodney. “Look at this satellite photo.”

Rodney handed a photo to Martin. Martin carefully studied the photo and knew almost at a glance what caused the strain in Rodney’s voice. The photo was less than an hour old. The satellite photo showed two Chinese FC-1s near one of the MQ-10s. Although not exactly state of the art, the FC-1 class of lightweight fighter aircraft was still a viable threat to an MQ-10, but that wasn’t the big issue. The MQ-10 had active stealth capabilities, which the USAF believed would elude China’s radar systems. Passive stealth lowered an aircraft’s radar signature via its structure and material. The active stealth of the MQ-10 went one step further. It analyzed the radar signal and returned a radar signature that made it invisible. For the last five years, their belief in the MQ-10’s invisibility appeared to be born out in numerous orbits over China’s most sensitive military regions, including Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Jinan, Lanzhou, Nanjing, and Shenyang.

Martin looked up from the photo and into Rodney’s eyes, “Two FC-1s in the proximity of one of our MQ-10s.”

“You win a cigar, Martin.” Rodney’s tone was sarcastic.

Martin and Rodney both knew they were violating China’s airspace, but the Pentagon wanted four MQ-10s in position to take out China’s major command centers if it became necessary. China, a world power second only to the United States, was believed to have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with nuclear warheads capable of striking any target in the United States. High-level military leaders in the Pentagon had respect for China’s military capability. The United States and China were major trade partners, which kept the relationship between the two countries cordial. However, Martin knew the relationship was fragile, and the Chinese would not hesitate to down an MQ-10 in their airspace. Since it was launched from the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, they might even attempt a missile attack on the USS Ford.

The Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier was the first of the U.S. Navy’s supercarriers and had been in service since 2016. The Ford-class of supercarriers was systematically replacing the U.S. Navy’s older Nimitz-class carriers. Martin’s mind raced through several scenarios, none of them pleasant.

Martin looked at Rodney, “What has the MQ-10 done in response?”

“Signaled the other MQ-10s…apparently, it has analyzed the situation and thinks it may be a coincidence.”

Martin did not like coincidences. Neither did Rodney. However, the MQ-10s were calling the plays.

“The other MQ-10s have altered their course and are returning to the USS Ford.”

Then Rodney looked straight into Martin’s eyes. “I have to let the Pentagon know what’s going on. I want you to get on top of this and give me hourly briefings sooner if something happens.” Both Martin and Rodney knew that the MQ-10 would likely best the older FC-1s, but that was not the point. They were violating China’s airspace, and any armed conflict would constitute an act of war.

“Yes, sir.” Martin saluted and left. He hastened briskly to the Combat Command Center that interfaced with the MQ-10s. Once again, Martin found himself inside a dimly lit container, which brought back old memories. The six lieutenants responsible for interfacing with the MQ-10s were focused on their monitors, but one saw Martin and said, “General in the Command Center.” They all stood to attention and saluted.

Martin quickly returned their salute and said, “As you were.”

Martin walked over to Lieutenant James, the officer responsible for interfacing with the MQ-10s launched from the USS Ford. Martin could sense James’ uneasiness as he watched him shift positions in the cockpit chair.

Martin attempted to keep his emotions in check, “What’s the current status?”

“The MQ-10s have dropped to hug the ground.” James’ voice was strained.

Martin knew this was standard procedure even before they had active stealth. It made it difficult to detect the MQ-10s from the ground clutter. However, it also made them easier to detect visually. The MQ-10s had complete terrain features in their onboard memories. They would almost certainly avoid visual detection by taking a course with little to no population.

Martin looked down at James, who had his eyes fixed on the monitor screen, “What are the FC-1s doing?”

“They appear to be following Flash.” Flash was the call sign of the MQ-10 being followed by the FC-1s.

Was that just another coincidence? Martin wondered. “When will the other MQ-10s be back to the USS Ford?”

“Lucky, Rabbit, and Kujo should be onboard the USS Ford within four hours. Flash is flying an evasive pattern.”

Martin did not like the two coincidences. First, he did not like the FC-1s within range of an MQ-10, and, second, he did not like the FC-1s apparently following it.

“I think Flash is attempting to ascertain if the FC-1s are aware of its presence,” said James.

Cat and mouse, like the old days, thought Martin. Martin looked at his watch. It was 8:30 A.M., and he would need to give his first report to General Rodney at 9:15 A.M. Martin pulled up a chair next to James.

Martin turned to James. “Have you contacted the USS Ford?”

“Yes, Captain Ramsey said that he would follow our lead.” Martin knew this meant Ramsey didn’t want his fingerprints on the incident. Ever since MQ-10s used carriers as a base, the U.S. Congress gave the USAF responsibility for the missions. However, the carrier captain could also launch MQ-10 missions in support of carrier missions. The carrier captain, by Congressional order, at a minimum had to sanction and support all MQ-10 missions.

Martin knew Henry “Hank” Ramsey by reputation only, and by reputation, he was one of the Navy’s best carrier captains. Martin also knew you did not become captain of a Ford-class carrier by making any significant misjudgments. The MQ-10 incident was a minefield for potential misjudgments. Martin now knew he alone owned the MQ-10 China incident, all this in less than 45 minutes from his arrival at the base.

“I’m going to keep you company for a while,” Martin said in a resigned tone.

James nodded, “Yes, sir.” There appeared to be relief in his voice.

For the moment, all Martin or James could do is watch and wait. At 9:15 A.M., Martin called Rodney.

“All MQ-10s are ground-hugging,” Martin told Rodney in a calm voice and then added, “the MQ-10s, with call signs Lucky, Rabbit, and Kujo, are returning to USS Ford, ETA a little over three hours. The MQ-10, with call sign Flash, is still being followed by the FC-1s and is taking evasive precautions.” Martin paused, waiting for Rodney’s reaction.

“Essentially, no change?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let’s make some progress on this before your next briefing.” Rodney’s statement came across as a direct command.

“Yes, sir.”

With that, the call ended. Martin knew Rodney wanted to hear a plan of action. Martin thought in frustration, Why don’t you ask Flash? Supposedly, Flash is smarter than I am. However, Martin knew that in one hour, he would need to communicate a plan.

As Martin watched the radar screen from Flash and the satellite surveillance monitor, he turned to James, “Get me Captain Ramsey.”

“Yes, Sir.”

James pushed one button on his keypad, and Martin heard the USS Ford almost instantly reply, “Signal acknowledged Nellis.”

“General Martin would like to talk to Captain Ramsey.”

“He’s on the bridge, putting you through.”

Martin thought It’s almost midnight on the USS Ford, and Ramsey is on the bridge.” Martin knew if Ramsey was on the bridge, Ramsey completely understood the situation.

“This is Captain Ramsey.”

“Good evening, Captain. Sorry if we are keeping you up.”

“Morning, General Martin. It’s all part of the job. What can I do for you?”

“I want you to give our MQ-10s a little help.”

“I’m listening.”

“As soon as the other three MQ-10s are clear of China’s airspace, I’d like you to knock on China’s door.”

Ramsey knew that Martin was asking him to send a fighter jet into China’s airspace. Checking China’s response time to intrusion in their airspace was routine.

“Then what,” replied Ramsey.

“Keep knocking.”

This meant Martin wanted Ramsey to do multiple tests. It was out of the ordinary to continue testing China’s response time. It was also dangerous.

“It’s your show,” replied Ramsey.

Martin knew Ramsey agreed, “Thank you, Captain.”

The communication ended.

“Sir,” said James, “What do you have in mind?”

“A diversion.”

Martin reasoned that China might suspect they have an intrusion with Flash but was banking that it was only a suspicion. However, an obvious intrusion may divert their attention.

“Let the four MQ-10s know what we are going to do.”

James’ fingers typed furiously. The message went from James keyboard to the communication satellite and from the satellite to the MQ-10s. All four MQ-10s acknowledged the communication.

James turned to Martin. “The MQ-10s know, sir.”

It was 10:15 A.M. and time to call Rodney. Martin made the call and laid out his plan.

“If Ramsey’s onboard, I’m am also,” replied Rodney after hearing Martin’s plan.

Martin knew he was playing for all the marbles. It was bad enough to have an MQ-10 in China’s airspace, but now he would have the Navy’s fifth-generation fighter jet, the F-35C, doing response checks. The F-35C was the Navy’s best single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole fighter, modified for carrier-based Catapult Assisted Take-Off  But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR).

It crossed Martin’s mind that China might use its best defensive weapons, ground-to-air missiles or and air-to-air missiles. China’s missiles were formidable, and some believed capable of taking down an F-35C. However, response checks were relatively routine, dating back to the cold war between the former Soviet Union and the United States. Both China and the United States engaged in response checks. As long as the intrusions were short and shallow, Martin’s gut told him he’d get away with it.

At 11:15 A.M., Martin reported to Rodney that Lucky, Rabbit, and Kujo would clear China’s airspace in approximately 30 minutes. The F-35C was already in the air and nearing China’s airspace. Flash was continuing evasive actions while slowly making its way back to the USS Ford. All seemed to be going on a plan.

At 11:45 A.M., Lucky, Rabbit, and Kujo cleared China’s airspace, and the F-35C made its first knock. China dispatched two FC-1s to address the obvious intrusion. However, the F-35C was in and out before they arrived.

At 12:00 P.M., the F-35C made another intrusion. The FC-1’s were close, and this second intrusion was dangerous. The F-35C was in and out in less than 30 seconds, and the FC-1s began to pursue the F-35C aggressively.

James responded to a flickering light on his console. “Captain Ramsey on the line for you, sir.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“We’ve knocked twice, and the FC-1s are too close for another knock.”

“Can you keep them engaged without provoking a response?”

“We can, but we’re not going to knock a third time. We’ll deploy another F-35C  and get them wondering what we’re doing. We’re going to make it look like a war game. I’ll get back to you.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

Martin thought it was a smart move on Ramsey’s part. Another F-35C just outside of China’s airspace would definitely raise their curiosity. Martin believed China didn’t want to engage an F-35C but had to put on a show of force. With two F-35C’ in the game, the FC-1s wouldn’t stand a chance of winning a combat exchange.

Martin turned to James, “How close is Flash to getting out of China’s air space?”

“About 30 minutes, depending on how evasively it behaves.”

“Are the FC-1s still in pursuit?”


Martin thought it was too coincidental.

James made an interesting observation. “Maybe they’ve been ordered to assist the other FC-1s,”

“Maybe,” Martin replied, adding, “That would roughly put them on the same course as Flash.”

Martin called Rodney at precisely 12:15 P.M. and made his report. Things seemed to be on plan, and Rodney had little to say.

By 12:30 P.M., Martin thought his plan was working. In less than 15 minutes, the MQ-10 would be out of China’s airspace. Then things got dicey. One of the FC-1s following Flash began a fast pursuit right toward it. An MQ-10 would defend itself if attacked and likely best the FC-1. Martin feared the worse. He thought, World War III.

“Talk to me, James. What’s happening?”

“Flash has gained altitude.”

“What, the…” Martin caught himself before finishing his thought out loud.

“It is now at the same altitude as F35Cs’ and heading right toward them. In 3 minutes, it will be out of China’s air space.”

Martin’s eyes frozen to the screen, he wondered, What is Flash doing?

James’ next words caught Martin totally by surprise, “It’s giving off the radar signature of an F-35C.”

Martin then knew Flash’s plan. Dam smart. The Chinese will think this is another F-35C intrusion check. The Chinese will be pissed but unlikely to fire on an F-35C.

“We’re clear, Sir.” James’ voice signaled relief. “The F-35C’ are flanking Flash and returning to the USS Ford. Two of the FC-1s have broken formation. It looks like they are going home.”

“We’ll probably get their official complaint within the hour,” Martin’s tone was light and confident. “Get me Captain Ramsey.”

James contacted the USS Ford and got Ramsey on the line.

“Thank you for your support, Captain.”

“Smart play,” said Ramsey. Martin knew his tone that the Captain was impressed.

“Thank you Captain… I’d like to ground all MQ-10s until we do an analysis.”

“Will do.”

Martin called Rodney and explained the entire series of events.

“You’re grounding the MQ-10s?”

“Yes, until we can get a better handle on why the FC-1s were following Flash.”

“The Pentagon is going to be pissed.”

“Better pissed than sorry. We need to know if the active stealth is still working. It could just be a technical issue with Flash.” Martin said the words but knew of all secrets that military secrets were the hardest to keep. He could not help but think, Have the Chinese figured out our active stealth technology?

“Okay, but I want a full report by noon tomorrow…and I want the MQ-10s back in service within 72 hours…Just fix it, Martin.”

“Yes, sir.’

“Martin…good work today…smart move having the MQ-10 cloak itself as an F-35C.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The call ended, and Martin thought, How close to World War III did we come today?

Martin could not help but smile on his drive home, knowing he took credit for Flash’s cloaking maneuver.

His wife, Andrea, greeted him with her usual kiss.

“How did it go today?” Andrea gave Andy her usual smile.

“Just another day at the office,” he smiled back and loosened his tie. “How was your day?”