‘Air Force We Need 2.0’ Exploring Low-Cost, Unmanned Aircraft

The Air Force is working on a new version of its 2018 “Air Force We Need” force structure white paper to explore how unmanned aircraft like the autonomous Skyborg wingman drone could become part of the combat force.

That aspirational document, which advocated for growing 24 percent to 386 squadrons, didn’t include a placeholder for the lower-cost, easily replaceable unmanned aircraft that are becoming a larger Air Force development priority, Col. Frederick Haley, deputy division chief of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability group’s futures and concepts division, said Oct. 1.

Haley discussed the effort to refine the force structure analysis during the rollout of a new Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies study entitled “Understanding the Promise of Skyborg and Low-Cost Attritable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.”

“We have iterated since then a study of a kind of ‘Air Force We Need 2.0,’ which is including some of these featured concepts into overall campaigns so we can understand what that might look like,” Haley said.

The Mitchell paper, authored by staff analysts retired Col. Mark Gunzinger and Lukas Autenreid, calls for USAF to rapidly pursue low-cost, attritable aircraft and unmanned combat aircraft as “an affordable way to grow the USAF’s combat capacity and balance its other requirements.”

The authors described the new unmanned systems as “a third choice” for force structure between expensive, advanced aircraft that are meant to last, like manned fighter jets, and “single-use capabilities” like precision-guided munitions. They argued that USAF should buy developmental systems like Skyborg and Gremlins swarming drones in significant numbers to use where missions may be too dangerous for human pilots, or where long-term flight or additional munitions are needed.

Gunzinger said the systems will offer the Air Force capability options inside and outside of an adversary’s air defense weapons.

The paper argued that USAF should experiment with the new systems, and quickly field them to figure out how to use them. The Air Force wants a combat-ready version of Skyborg by 2023 to act as a munitions truck, a decoy, or a surveillance vehicle for partnered fighter jets. Thirteen companies are now on contract to create technologies that could plug into an eventual Skyborg design, and the Air Force is planning flight experiments to start next year. It has already started flight tests with Kratos’s XQ-58 Valkyrie.

Skyborg’s manned-unmanned teaming abilities could give the Air Force an advantage over other advanced militaries, even if the service misses its 386-squadron goal. Earlier this year, then-presumptive Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. told senators the Valkyrie will offer pilots greater situational awareness and strike capability.

The Mitchell paper argues that unmanned aircraft should add to the service’s inventory, not replace fifth-generation stealth aircraft “needed to maintain the USAF’s combat advantage over peer adversaries.”

The authors suggested USAF develop aircraft that can be launched and recovered without an airfield, like hand- or rail-launched drones similar to the RQ-11 Raven. Because their payloads would be smaller and more affordable than larger, more complex aircraft, the analysts say it would offer the greatest combat value for electromagnetic warfare, command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and “other non-kinetic missions.”

Low-end systems would cost about $2 million to $5 million, while the most sophisticated types could cost up to $20 million, they said. Deploying them in bulk would overwhelm adversaries, the authors argued.

Gunzinger said that classified annexes supplied to Congress along with the Air Force white paper lacked various types of combat drones, though the other documents considered them and called them “very promising.”

Haley said the original “Air Force We Need” study didn’t include any of those prospective capabilities when it pushed for 386 combat squadrons because the effort was based on the current programs of record. The service is still contemplating how many of each kind of unmanned aircraft it might want in a future force.

AFWIC, which considers future technology and tactics for the force, has looked at deploying 5 to 10 squadrons of low-cost, attritable aircraft. Each unit would have roughly the same manpower footprint as a “light” maintenance unit for launch and recovery, Haley said.

The service has studied pairing two smaller, less-sophisticated unmanned platforms for every one F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, he added. Instead of creating separate units for drones, they could be part of an F-35 squadron that would handle UAV launch and recovery as well as F-35 operations.

Those mixed manned-unmanned units could be known as “air dominance squadrons” that use new tactics together in combat, said David A. Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who now runs the Mitchell Institute.

USAF has done a “fairly deep analysis” of that construct, and found that partnering fighters with drones would allow for more combat sorties than deploying a manned fighter alone, Haley said. He also said the Air Force does not see unmanned combat aircraft replacing earlier versions of the F-16 fighter at this point.

There are “lots of different options and ways to go,” Haley said, adding, “It’s so important to get these capabilities into the hands of the warfighters and start experimenting” to validate the analysts’ assumptions.

Douglas Meador, deputy program manager of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology program, said experiments so far have validated that a single person can command up to seven unmanned aircraft at a time, thanks to artificial intelligence.

While the Air Force has long referred to Skyborg as the “Loyal Wingman” program, Meador said AFRL is trying to ditch the wingman moniker because “it gives the impression these aircraft are going to be flying close together.”

“In many concepts … these aircraft won’t be in visual range of each other,” he noted.

Deptula added that unmanned aircraft will start reshape an Air Force inventory that is dominated by older, fourth-generation jets that lack the stealth and advanced software of newly designed planes.

“This is real work that’s being accomplished now, and I think it will be the first step in a movement to a very different-looking Air Force in the mid-21st century,” Deptula said.