Manned fighter jets may have a limited future. The secretary of the US Navy has announced that the new F-35 Lightning II “should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.”

The Register reports that the Navy’s secretary Ray Mabus made the announcement at the Sea-Air-Space 2015 conference on Wednesday. In his speech, Mabus explained:

[W]ith unmanned technology, removing a human from the machine can open up room to experiment with more risk, improve systems faster and get them to the fleet quicker. While unmanned technology itself is not new, the potential impact these systems will have on the way we operate is almost incalculable... We need to give ideas like this one a place to flourish, and that’s why, in the coming months, we will be making some pretty substantial changes to how the Department is organized to ensure the structure is in place to help incorporate this capability more fluidly into our operations.

Part of that change includes the appointment of a new Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems, as well as a new office for unmanned systems in its Warfare Systems division, “ so that all aspects of unmanned – in all domains – over, on and under the sea and coming from the sea to operate on land – will be coordinated and championed,” according Mabus.

He also pointed to the fact that the Navy is looked to capitalize on rapid prototyping and 3D printing technologies in the future. “The only limit to what this new technology can do for us is our imagination,” he explained, adding that “the potential for technology like this – and the fact that we can print them – make them – ourselves, almost anywhere, is incredible.”

The Navy has already been experimenting with these kinds of concepts: “a group of Sailors onboard USS Essex used advanced manufacturing to create the parts for an unmanned aerial vehicle that they then built and flew,” points out Mabus, and its “Close-In Autonomous Disposable Aircraft (CICADA) can be made with a 3D printer, and is a GPS guided disposable unmanned aerial vehicle that can be deployed in large numbers.”

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But clearly this is just the start. Mabus wants to use technology to escape the “the tortuous, sometimes years-long acquisition process.” He’s got a point: those processes aren’t just slow and complex, they can stymie innovation and unfairly favor contractors too, leading—ultimately—to a Navy without the competitive advantage it needs. Perhaps ditching fighter pilots in favor of drones can fix that. Mabus seems to think so. [Navy Live via The Register via The Verge]

Image by US Air Force