What Makes an Ace in the 21st Century?

By Scott Spangler on February 19th, 2024

When it was revealed in a BBC interview, The Fighter Pilots Hunting Houthi Drones Over the Red Sea, that Marine Captain Earl Ehrhart, an AV-8B Harrier pilot aboard the USS Bataan, had downed seven drones, subsequent stories on this action hailed him as America’s newest ace, the first since the last helo left Saigon in April 1975.

“The Houthis were launching a lot of suicide attack drones,” says Ehrhart, and to be effective against this rebel group, the marines needed to adapt, the BBC story reports. “’We took a Harrier jet and modified it for air defence,’ Ehrhart tells me. ‘We loaded it up with missiles and that way were able to respond to their drone attacks.’” In the next sentence, the experienced fighter pilot said he intercepted seven Houthi drones.

Nowhere in the BBC article is the word ace. It seems that aviation editor and authors applied this appellation without fully contemplating the necessary attributes of becoming an ace beyond five victories. For some concise insight, I turned to the American Fighter Aces Association, founded in 1960 to recognize the over 1,450 combat pilots from World War I to the present that achieved the status of American Fighter Ace by destroying five or more hostile aircraft in air-to-air combat.

Given their intent and mission, the Houthi drones are, without a doubt “hostile aircraft.” And Capt. Ehrhart and all the other AV-8B and F-18 pilots have certainly destroyed these pilotless drones. But the key ingredient missing in earning the title of ace is, as the American Fighter Aces Association clearly states, is destroying these “hostile aircraft in air-to-air combat.”

Downing a drone with a missile does not meet the definition or spirit of aerial combat, “a fight between individuals or groups.” Yes, the Houthis are a group, but all they are doing is programming their drones to hit terrestrial targets and ships, not defend themselves against a Harrier or Super Hornet. When artificial intelligence matures and undertakes a drone’s defensive capabilities, destroying it in air-to-air combat will count toward the title of ace. And if AI destroys its opponent, it will be one tally closer to the title.

Until that time, lets appreciate and recognize our aviators for the multitude of risks they face on every sortie but reserve the accolade of ace for those who achieve it in a competitive arena. –Scott Spangler, Editor


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