The Air Force is ramping up plans for incorporating drone wingmen into its fleet and envisions 1,000 of the so-called collaborative combat aircraft in service as it sketches out ideas.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said Tuesday that the service will ask Congress for funding in the fiscal 2024 budget to move forward with the  Compound Control Aircraft (CCA) program, as well as the Next Generation Air Dominance program of futuristic fighter aircraft, so it can map out how it will operate, organize and support these new systems.

On Tuesday at the Air and Space Force Association’s AFA Warfare Symposium held in Aurora, Colorado, Kendall stated that he and Gen. CQ Brown had directed planners to prepare to purchase 1,000 CCAs potentially. He remarked that this plan would have the Air Force obtain two CCAs for each of the 200 NGAD systems and two for 300 F-35s.

Kendall warned that the Air Force’s final figures would probably differ from the initial numbers. However, he noted that these numbers are a rough estimate to help the service determine its basing requirements, organizational frameworks, instruction, field needs, and support ideas.

“Sound judgments can be made on whether the requirements are really worth the cost or not,” Kendall said. “There is real change occurring in engineering and design practice … which is going to be helpful to us.”

The Secretary stated that the CCAs would greatly benefit the performance of their fighter force by augmenting it. Additionally, CCAs will significantly boost the performance of their crewed aircraft and dramatically reduce the peril to their pilots.

Frank Kendall
Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall (Source: U.S. Secretary of Defense/Flickr)

Kendall has placed high importance on bringing CCAs with autonomous capabilities into the Air Force’s future aircraft inventory as he strives to update their fighter jets to be prepared for a potential future conflict.

At a February address at the Brookings Institution, Brown detailed the potential uses of drones, ranging from attacking targets to performing electronic warfare, intelligence gathering, and surveillance.

The Air Force hopes these drones will be cost-effective compared to regular aircraft and, in some cases, low-priced enough to sacrifice them in battle. This way, they can set CCAs on more daring tasks without risking the lives of their human pilots.

Kendall pointed out in his address that adopting drone wingmen will not lead to a decrease in the number of crewed fighters in the Air Force’s arsenal. Instead, he suggested they can be seen as remotely piloted versions of the missiles or electronic warfare elements already affixed to crewed aircraft.

He also asserted at the conference that the Air Force requires the CCAs to be considerably less expensive than the F-35, which is sold at approximately $78 million per unit in its 14th lot. He made clear that affordability is a necessity for the program.

Additionally, the CCA program would be one of many new or significantly increased programs included in the upcoming budget request. He added that around a dozen of these will require authorization from Congress, while the remainder are augmentations of already-present programs, such as the Advanced Battle Management System.

On Tuesday, Brown said, during a roundtable, that the Air Force is taking a three-pronged approach to the development of CCAs: creating the platform, working on the autonomous software that will control the CCA, and forming a plan for organizing, training, equipping, and providing resources for the project.

Brown stated that some work involves devising and perfecting the drone’s autonomous core so that a fighter pilot is not overwhelmed by controlling and regulating the CCA. To study autonomy, the X-62A Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft (VISTA) – a heavily altered F-16 fighter at Edwards Air Force Base in California – is being used for experiments.

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“There’s a number of ways to do this, whether it’s voice [commands] or touchscreen,” Brown said. “Just think about our day-to-day lives, and the autonomy we have. So the technology is there. It’s just how we bring this into our military applications.”

Air Force Facing Challenges Head On

In his keynote address at the Air and Space Force Association’s AFA Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colorado, Tuesday, Kendall said he and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown told planners to assume the service might acquire 1,000 CCAs. Under this model, the Air Force would acquire two CCAs for every manned aircraft in a squadron. The drones would be controlled by a pilot in the lead aircraft with a direct data link between the two platforms.

“My greatest fear today is a delay or even worse, a failure to provide the Department of the Air Force and the Department of Defense with timely authorizations and appropriations,” Kendall said. “That will be a gift to China. It’s a gift that we cannot afford.”

The notion of deploying large unmanned aircraft alongside manned fighters has been introduced previously. For example, the Navy has been flying Northrop Grumman’s X-47B unmanned air system demonstrator on carrier decks since 2013. It is now working on a follow-on program, MQ-25A Stingray, to provide refueling capability for its carrier air wings. The Air Force has also been experimenting with Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance platform in various roles, including electronic warfare and signals intelligence gathering.

What is new is the idea of pairing large numbers of low-cost drones with more sophisticated manned fighter jets such as the F-22 Raptor or F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to multiply combat power at a time when China and Russia are challenging U.S. military superiority.

Kendall did not give details about what kind of drone might be used for the CCA program or its capabilities beyond serving as a companion platform to a manned fighter jet. However, he indicated that developers are already looking at ways to increase the autonomy of future systems so they can carry out more complicated missions without constant supervision from human operators.

“There are some interesting enables coming down the road in terms of artificial intelligence and machine learning that I think are going to allow us to do some pretty amazing things in terms of increasing automation and increasing trust in automation,”

Kendall said. “So I think there are some really interesting capabilities here that we haven’t had before.”

As for whether there are ethical concerns about giving machines too much authority over lethal force decisions, the Air Force said they are making sure such issues must be carefully considered but should not prevent the military from moving forward with new technologies.

“We’re still exploring all those technologies. But we see it more along the lines of, I’m going to be able to issue some behavioral commands and do some mission planning — a combination of those two — until I get to the point where I need to lethally or non-lethally engage with an effect. That’s going to be a human on the loop for the foreseeable future. We just don’t see a path right now for us to field a [fully autonomous drone] capability that both is effective in this warfighting capacity, but also supports American values and the law of armed conflict,” said Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, director of plans, programs, and requirements at Air Combat Command. 

“I’m not going to have this robot go out and just start shooting at things [on its own]. That’s not something we’re going to do. So, there’ll be a human in or on the loop in that way for sure to be able to target a particular track, communicate with the CCA vehicle and then have it engage. Just think of it as just an extension of your weapons bay if you’re in an F-22, F-35 [pilot] or whatnot,” he added.