Air Force Touts Unity of Effort in Push Toward New Collaborative Combat Aircraft

The Air Force will make a “significant investment” in uncrewed, collaborative combat aircraft, or CCAs, in the fiscal 2024 budget, a quartet of generals announced at the Pentagon. They insisted that the technology is mature enough to move aggressively toward a program that will yield operational capability in a few years.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has previously said CCA technology is mature enough that the concept can proceed to becoming a program of record, and that it will first appear in the ’24 budget request.

The four generals—Maj. Gen. Heather L. Pringle, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory; Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, director of plans, programs, and requirements for Air Combat Command (ACC); Brig. Gen. Dale R. White, program executive officer for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft; and Brig. Gen. Joseph D. Kunkel, director of plans and deputy chief of staff for plans and programs—collectively made the case that the push toward CCAs is well coordinated within the service, that the operational side of the service is onboard with the concept, and that experimentation so far has shown that it will be, in the words of White, “a game changer.”

The presentation seemed arranged to show unity within the service about the desirability of adding uncrewed airplanes to the crewed aircraft fleet, with buy-in from operators, technologists, budget planners, and sustainers.

In recent months, some current and retired senior leaders, including ACC commander Gen. Mark D. Kelly, have cautioned that introducing CCAs must be done iteratively, so that aircrews can build trust in their autonomous teammates and be comfortable with the technology before taking it to war.

CCAs “bring you a lot of opportunity for tactics, techniques, and procedures development, with different kinds of scheme of maneuver [and] with a different firepower that’s really not been seen before,” Jobe said.

“If you think of these things as an extension of our crewed aircraft, and the ability to manage risk in a different way, it brings a lot of potential capability, at a lower price point,” he said.

White said that an “enormous amount of analytical work” has gone into the concept, and that along with the science and technology done to date, “it’s instilled a level of confidence in us that this is a capability to pursue, that we need to pursue quickly, and we believe that it’s a game-changer.”

In order to “move the needle to get the capability faster,” White said companies were brought in early to “show us the art of the possible,” and “they have answered the call.” This was a different way of approaching a new capability, he said, and “we have worked with many vendors.”

It’s a “very collaborative relationship,” White said. “I think that’s what’s really key.” There has been “user involvement” since the beginning of the program, he said.

The CCAs will build directly on work done with the Skyborg program, one of the Air Force’s “Vanguard” technology incubators, which has created an artificial intelligence that can fly an aircraft. Skyborg has demonstrated that the technology is “portable,” Pringle said, having been shown to work in a number of different uncrewed aircraft, both solely and in concert with crewed aircraft. More demonstrations are still to come and are underway, she said.

The capability “in and of itself is critically important,” White said. The speed to ramp is really important, because this capability is something that we do believe will change the nature of the fight.”

While they would not characterize the level of funding planned for the program, “what I can say is, when our budget goes across the river, you’re going go see a significant investment” in CCAs, Kunkel said. He’s under orders from Kendall to “field an operational capability as soon as possible.”

Jobe added that the time to a usable capability must be “on a relevant timeline,” but he didn’t elaborate, except to say it’s “not something that’s going to take 10 years.” The timing of CCA introduction is “sensitive,” he said.

Capability development is taking place in “five distinct areas,” Jobe said, to apply CCAs to a highly complex threat. This, in turn, requires “teaming across the entire Air Force, [which has] been fairly unique to this exercise, at least in my experience.”

He said there’s been “a lot of analytical support that shows that this actually changes the way that we fight, and it makes us more effective in the way that we engage in combat operations. And it’s been in multiple independent studies, which makes us feel highly, highly confident that we’re on a solid path forward.”

He assured reporters that “there’s the requirements part to include concepts of operations, concepts of employment on how we plan to do crewed/uncrewed teaming, and bringing that all together.” Moreover, “we have to get the organization right,” he said, and there has been work done on developing doctrine for CCAs, as well as planning for how they will be maintained and organized.

Work has also been done determining the “legal authorities” required. The goal is not to create killer robots, he said, and a lot of work is yet to be done with the FAA to even allow armed, uncrewed aircraft to operate in civilian airspace.

“And you’re probably going to see us do operations in a different way than we’ve done in the past,” he said. “Again, this is a different capability.”

The “requirements and attributes” of CCAs have been defined, Jobe said, but a significant amount of modeling and simulation remains to be done to see how those play out in various scenarios.  

No one would describe the acquisition strategy for CCAs. Though cooperation with other countries—notably Australia—has been touted in the development of CCAs, he said, “We know we’re going to do our own competition in our own industrial base for a CCA.” That will change if Kendall directs a more internationally collaborative approach, he said.

Though not a joint program, the generals said the Navy has been involved with CCA development from the beginning, and they suggested that the Navy may lend some of its expertise, as well. It’s already working with an uncrewed tanker, the MQ-25 Stingray.