The US Air Force has big plans for the next-generation drones that will fight alongside its fighters and bombers
Over the past 30 years, the US Air Force's fighter fleet has shrunk.
As the service focuses on competition with China, it wants an affordable way to expand that fleet.
It's now developing collaborative combat aircraft, which can fight alongside piloted jets or on their own.
On April 11, General Atomics announced that AI and human pilots had successfully done combat maneuvers with the company's MQ-20 Avenger unmanned combat aerial vehicle.
The test involved human operators sending commands to the aircraft through a satellite in low earth orbit. The aircraft were also tracked and maneuvered by AI pilots operating autonomously. Data was collected and used to retrain and redeploy AI pilots via satellite connection while the aircraft was still airborne.
The test is one of the latest developments in the US Air Force's efforts to acquire collaborative combat aircraft — unmanned aircraft capable of operating alongside piloted aircraft or autonomously for all kinds of missions.
The collaborative combat aircraft is one of the Air Force's biggest priorities, one that will shape the future of its inventory and influence how it uses its aircraft.
"We're headed down the path to have much more capability for uncrewed aircraft," Gen. Charles Brown Jr., the Air Force chief of staff, said in February. "As you look at collaborative combat aircraft, it can be the sensor, it could be a shooter, it can be a jammer."
A need for 'affordable mass'
Collaborative combat aircraft, or CCA, are a solution to a problem the Air Force faces as it prepares for an era of great-power competition with China: the size of its fleet.
Budget cuts, the unexpectedly high cost of the F-35 stealth fighter, and the focus on low-intensity counterinsurgency operations for much of the past three decades led that fleet to shrink.
In 1989, the Air Force's total fighter inventory was 4,321 aircraft. That fell to 2,584 by 1999 and to 1,176 in 2022, according to the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. The number of mission-capable fighters — those that can fly and perform at least one mission — is even lower. Worse, the Air Force faces a pilot shortage and its overall number of flight hours has been decreasing.
The Air Force has tried to address those issues in several ways. It is acquiring the F-15EX, a modernized version of the F-15 that will replace older models, and it has invested in simulators to accelerate pilot training.
The Air Force also continues to develop top-tier assets like the F-35, the B-21 stealth bomber, and the Next Generation Air Dominance program, or NGAD.
However, those aircraft are very expensive, their development may still be delayed, and acquiring them doesn't address pilot retention and generation issues. Consequently, the Air Force wants cheaper, capable airframes to provide "affordable mass."
Collaborative combat aircraft
The Air Force has used drones for intelligence-gathering and airstrikes for decades, but its premier unmanned combat platforms, the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, are still operated remotely by humans.
CCAs, however, are meant to function remotely or autonomously and to perform a range of missions, including air-to-air combat, airstrikes, and intelligence-gathering. They will be able to operate alongside piloted aircraft in manned-unmanned teams, in which pilots will assign tasks that the CCAs complete on their own. The CCAs will also be able to operate completely autonomously with other CCAs.
CCAs are an integral part of NGAD, which seeks to create "a family of systems," not just a single fighter.
"One way to think about it is that the pod or the weapon that might have been under the wing of crewed aircraft is now flying in separate aircraft and managed by that commander of that aircraft," Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, the service's top civilian official, told lawmakers on May 2.
"The analysis that we've done shows that the adversary has to honor each of those aircraft, as it is a full threat, and that gives you a great advantage relative to the cost of having those things in the air," Kendall added.
CCAs will be piloted by systems that are in development. The Air Force's Skyborg program, which is pursuing an AI-enabled system to control unmanned aircraft, has successfully demonstrated its capabilities. DARPA's Air Combat Evolution program has demonstrated its ability to beat human pilots in simulated dogfights.
Kendall said in early March that the Air Force may acquire at least 1,000 CCAs — two each for some 500 NGAD aircraft and F-35s — but has since said that was just a starting point meant to show the Air Force was serious about the program.
"We're starting out with the intent to have at least two per fighter working together, but it could be more than that," Kendall told reporters at the Air and Space Forces symposium on March 7. "It's going to be a question of what the technology will support and what works out best operationally."
Kendall has said the cost of each CCA could be one-quarter to half the cost of an F-35. With F-35s running about $82.5 million, CCAs could cost between $21 million and $41 million.
"We can sacrifice one of these aircraft, put it well out in front, use it to draw a fire, and force the other side to expose itself and then be subject to engagement," Kendall told lawmakers this month. "We call them attritable. They're not expendable, but we can afford to lose some of them operationally."
Valkyrie, Avenger, and Ghost Bat
Air Force officials have indicated that because of the array of missions CCAs are expected to conduct, there likely won't be a single model.
At least three UCAVs in development could be candidates for the Air Force's program: the XQ-58 Valkyrie from Kratos Defense, the MQ-20 Avenger from General Atomics, and the MQ-28 Ghost Bat from Boeing.
The XQ-58A has a maximum launch weight of 6,000 pounds and can cruise at 550 mph. Its operational altitude is 45,000 feet and it has a range of 3,000 nautical miles. Since first flying in 2019, it has done multiple test flights for the Air Force, including being used as a datalink for F-22s and F-35s and work with the Skyborg program.
The Valkyrie's unique rocket-assisted takeoff system also gives it what Kratos and the Air Force call "runway independence." It uses parachutes and airbag cushions to land.
The MQ-20 Avenger first flew in 2009 and an upgraded version with increased fuel capacity flew in 2016. It has a top speed of about 460 mph and a 20-hour flight endurance and can reach altitudes over 50,000 feet. It can carry 6,500 pounds of ordnance, including missiles and precision-guided bombs.
The MQ-20 can also be fitted with sensors and cameras, making it suitable for intelligence-gathering and electronic warfare.
The Avenger's angular shape and internal weapons bay give it stealth properties. Only a few have been built, but it has been heavily involved in the Skyborg program.
The MQ-28 was developed by Boeing Australia for the Royal Australian Air Force and was originally known as the Airpower Teaming System, a nod to its intended role as a "loyal wingman" to manned aircraft.
Boeing has been very secretive about the Ghost Bat, which first flew in 2021. The company has said the drone can fly more than 2,000 nautical miles and carry sensor packages for intelligence-gathering and early-warning missions.
Australia has signed contracts for 10 MQ-28s, which are expected to enter service between 2024 and 2025. The US Air Force has acquired at least one MQ-28 for testing.
Kendall has said a formal competition for CCA acquisition could begin as soon as late 2023, and Air Force officials say the first CCAs could arrive in the late 2020s and enter service before the NGAD fighter.
"I think the CCA is not just desirable. It's essential" to meet the global challenges the Air Force faces, Kendall told lawmakers on March 28. "Without it, it's very difficult to envision how we could keep the Air Force at the size it currently is."
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