ORLANDO, Fla. — Billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk is known for pioneering disruptive technologies like reusable rocket ships and electronic cars, but during an appearance Friday at a conference on the U.S. Air Force, he was disruptive for other reasons.

During a fireside chat at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, Lt. Gen. John Thompson, who leads the Space and Missile Systems Center, asked Musk whether he had any innovative ideas about how aerial combat could be revolutionized.

The answer was less whimsical than what was probably anticipated.

“Locally autonomous drone warfare is where it’s at, where the future will be,” Musk said. “It’s not that I want the future to be this, that’s just what the future will be. … The fighter jet era has passed. Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones.”

Hushed murmurs and laughter rippled across the audience.

“OK. Let’s go back about failure,” Thompson said, changing the subject back to the early days of SpaceX.

Musk’s answer was hardly an original one. The Air Force and other military services have been embroiled in a decades-long debate about the balance of manned and unmanned technology, and how future leaps in artificial intelligence could both enable and complicate the rules of engagement on a battlefield.

But the discussion — and Musk’s willingness to go off script — highlighted a still-apparent culture clash between the more conservative, risk-averse Air Force and the dynamic, freewheeling commercial space industry, even as the Defense Department stands up the Space Force and casts an eager eye on a space-technology boom.

Much of what Musk talked about with Thompson lined up with typical Air Force talking points: The SpaceX founder encouraged young airmen to study physics and computer technology, saying both disciplines have “very good predictive power.” He predicted that AI would likely be the most transformative technology to emerge over the next five years. And he urged the service to take big risks to get “radical outcomes.”

But sometimes, things got weird. At one point, smooth jazz started playing, leaving Musk and Thompson struggling to talk over the bleating of a saxophone. At another, Musk compared low-cost access to space to the construction of a railroad that could safely bring travelers to the West Coast without the risk of calamities that could force those making the journey to eat their compatriots.

Also at the event, Musk praised competition during a discussion on reusable rockets, which SpaceX is developing.

“Not to cause controversy, but in my opinion, the Joint Strike Fighter — there should be a competitor to JSF. I know that’s [a] controversial subject,” he said, referring to Lockheed Martin’s F-35. Lockheed beat out Boeing in 2001 for the JSF contract, but the downselect and the cancellation of the F-22 program left the Defense Department with no other fifth-generation alternative to the F-35.

Unsurprisingly, Thompson did not follow up on that point.

Two times during the hourlong chat, Musk urged the Air Force to make the Space Force emulate Starfleet, the iconic space organization made famous in “Star Trek.”

“We’ve got to make Starfleet happen,” he said as the audience applauded. “We want real big space ships that can go far places. And this will probably get me into the most trouble of all: I think there should be a new uniform.”

“When the public thinks about Space Force, that’s what they think,” he added. “We want the sci-fi futures, the good sci-fi futures, to be real. And, ideally, to become real while we’re still alive.”

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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