Future manned combat aircraft are on their current trajectory not affordable, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at the AFA Warfare Symposium in March. Unmanned autonomous aircraft hold the key to making future tactical aviation affordable. Mike Tsukamoto/staff
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Betting on Unmanned Bomber, Fighter ‘Families’

March 23, 2022

SECAF Frank Kendall believes the future is unmanned—mostly.

The answer to the Air Force’s need for new tactical and strategic aircraft largely will be unmanned—embodied in a family of new aircraft in various states of development—Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at the AFA Warfare Symposium in March.

“On its current trajectory, the tactical Air Force is not affordable,” Kendall asserted. The F-35, F-15EX, and the coming Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) aircraft “are all too costly to fill out our needed force structure.” As older airplanes retire, there won’t be enough aircraft to meaningfully deter China or Russia unless USAF sets off in a new direction, he said, emphasizing that while Russia may pose the most “immediate” threat, China remains the pacing threat against which the United States must benchmark its military capability. Unlike Russia, China has the economic means to challenge the U.S. in every military domain. 

“A clear-eyed, objective perspective” on the relative dangers of China and Russia “is impossible in the moment,” Kendall said, speaking just one week after Russian forces invaded Ukraine. “The threat of a major land war in Europe was something that, until a few days ago, most of us believed was extremely remote. So much for that.” 

Russia reminds us that ‘great power conflicts’ could happen, and could do so at any time.Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall

But what Russia reminded the world is that “great power conflicts could happen and could do so at any time.” The role of the Department of the Air Force is clear, he said: “to provide Air and Space Forces that will deter aggression and, if necessary, defeat it.”

Kendall said his top three priorities remain unchanged: “China, China, China,” and the Air Force must swiftly overhaul itself to meet that challenge. 

 “We have an aging and costly-to-maintain capital structure with average aircraft ages of approximately 30 years and operational availability rates that are too low,” he said. “We’re still limited in our ability to shift resources away from the legacy platforms we need to retire to free up funds for modernization.”

USAF isn’t “flying and training enough,” Kendall said, “sacrificing” its historical advantage in aircrew experience and is burdened with 20 percent excess basing capacity and “a significant number of programs that are not fully funded beyond the budget year.” 

Yet the Air Force must be able to deal with “a possible invasion of Taiwan and a land assault on a NATO member, … not some time in the future. Now.”

Kendall promised a fiscal 2023 budget request, anticipated for release in April, that will be “aligned” with the new National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategies.

Repeating his seven imperatives for the Air and Space Forces, he said “there is a great deal of work to be done in finalizing the best long-term modernization program for each.”   

Kendall said, “We start more programs than we can afford, and don’t prioritize the most promising ones early.” 

Kendall’s Operational Imperatives

  • Defining a resilient and effective space order of battle
  • Achieving an operationally optimized Advanced Battle Management System
  • Defining the Next Generation Air Dominance system of systems
  • Achieving air and ground moving target identification at scale
  • Defining optimized, resilient basing
  • Defining the B-21 long-range-strike family of systems
  • Readying the Department of the Air Force to transition to a wartime posture against a peer competitor.

New unmanned aircraft programs can address many of the Air Force’s problems, he noted, but like all of his imperatives, “if we don’t get them right, we will have unacceptable operational risk.”

The Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems will include a crewed platform, Kendall said, teamed with “much less-expensive, autonomous, uncrewed combat aircraft.” Employing a distributed, tailorable mix of sensors, weapons, and other mission equipment, these systems will be designed to operate “as a team or a formation” in a system-of-systems approach to air-to-air combat. NGAD, he said, “must be more than just the next crewed fighter jet.”

Kendall envisions “one to five uncrewed combat aircraft controlled by a single, modern crewed aircraft,” which could be the NGAD or the F-35.

“The idea is for the crewed aircraft to be essentially calling plays and employing uncrewed combat aircraft as wingmen in tactically optimized ways,” Kendall said. These would be “attritable” aircraft, inexpensive enough that they could be lost without grave disadvantage. That opens up “a world of fascinating tactical opportunities.”

The exact mix of manned to unmanned aircraft, and the tactics they could employ, are all being analyzed and defined, Kendall said. The Skyborg autonomous flight control system and the “loyal wingman” Australian Advanced Teaming System concept have generated “enough confidence” that he’s convinced that such systems are achievable.

Brig. Gen. Dale R. White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, said the new programs will be built around the artifical intelligence developed for Skyborg.

“We’re ready for a program … ready to move out” in fiscal 2023, he told reporters at the symposium. While there’s still “more science and technology to do,” the core capability is there, he said.

Maj. Gen. Heather L. Pringle, head of  the Air Force Research Laboratory, promised a program “focused … on what the Secretary wants to do.” White said a close relationship with ACC on unmanned programs will ensure that operators are involved in designing the systems. 

Now, Kendall said, manned-unmanned teaming must cross the so-called “valley of death” where interesting prototype efforts and concepts die before becoming programs of record that produce meaningful capabilities.

Kendall said the Air Force’s “4+1” fighter roadmap, laid out last summer, remains valid, and is necessary to organize force structure and new investments. 

The 4+1 plan includes: 

  • The F-22 transitioning to the NGAD;
  • The F-35;
  • The F-15E and F-15EX;
  • The F-16; and
  • The A-10 as the “plus-one,” phasing out completely circa 2030.

Bomber Technology 

“Defining the B-21 bomber’s long-range strike family of systems” is among Kendall’s seven imperatives, but an unmanned bomber is “more speculative” than unmanned wingmen in the fighter community. As with NGAD, he wants the unmanned aircraft to be a lower-cost strategic capability that complements the manned B-21 bomber now nearing first flight. Kendall said he’s aiming for a system half the cost of the B-21, or less. He wants the same from an unmanned NGAD system. 

The B-21 has a ceiling cost of $550 million, in base year 2010 dollars, or $713.6 million today. The new unmanned bomber would have to cost less than $356 million apiece, while matching or besting the B-21’s speed and range. That suggests the airframe will have large wings, according to Randall Walden, Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) director, whose office is overseeing the B-21. 

The new aircraft must have “a reasonable payload when it gets” to its destination, Kendall said. It has yet to be defined whether the new airplane must be nuclear-capable. 

Like the uncrewed fighter, the unmanned bomber will have “mission-tailorable capability” and will be able to employ a variety of sensors, payloads, and weapons, according to Kendall.

“They can also be attritable or even sacrificed if doing so conferred a major operational advantage,” he said.

Kendall declined to comment in detail on B-21 progress, saying only that the program is doing “reasonably well” and adding, “we may end up buying more than we’ve currently planned” because the Air Force will need “perhaps more long-range capability … at some point in the future.”

The original requirement was 80 to 100 B-21s, but the Air Force has since changed that to a “minimum” of 100, with Air Force Global Strike Command leaders suggesting that 120 or more should be the minimum buy. While Kendall declined to say how many new uncrewed strategic platforms are needed, he noted those aircraft would be “additive” to the B-21 fleet, not a substitute for manned Raiders.

Walden said the new strategic aircraft would likely fly ahead of the B-21, serving as its ultra-stealthy eyes and ears, and possibly neutralizing air defense threats ahead of the manned airplane. But the cost has to be tightly controlled to realize the operational benefits, he said.

“We would take more risk with an unmanned system that is not as expensive as the manned system,” he said. Could Kendall’s new unmanned bomber spell the end for crewed bombers? Walden said every USAF bomber so far has had a human crew, with the advantage that mission aircraft can be recalled even after they are dispatched to combat. It was always planned that there could be an unmanned version of the B-21, Walden said. That’s still the case, but an unmanned B-21 would not meet Kendall’s requirement that it be “half the cost” of the standard model. 

The B-21 Raider, the first new Air Force bomber design since the 1980s, is scheduled for its first flight within the year. Northrop Grumman/courtesy graphic

“Once you start to put cost on there, just like we did with the B-21, that really tells what the design’s going to be,” he said. 

But the unmanned bomber is real, Walden said. “We’ve got the top-level requirement from the Secretary of the Air Force.” 

The B-21 program, which got underway in 2015, is now on the verge of rollout and first flight. If the unmanned bomber follows the same timeline, it could be available by the end of the decade. Once the program is officially launched, Walden said, the RCO is “pretty good at doing that piece in a relatively fast way.” 

He said the program will likely start with a risk-reduction phase, with potentially competitive designs going through preliminary and Critical Design Review. After that, a judgment would be made whether industry could actually produce an operationally useful platform, after which source-selection criteria could be defined. 

“We know how to do this,” he added. “We’ve done this before.”

Walden revealed that the first of six B-21s now under construction has wings and landing gear installed and “really looks like a bomber.” It has been moved to a different hangar at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., plant, where calibration testing will begin soon.

The results of those tests will lead to a last-chance evaluation, “making sure the structure is designed and built to what we actually meant it to do,” Walden said. Then comes the final preflight tests. “We have to apply power to it, start the engines, go through hydraulics, everything you normally do in a ground test to make sure it’s operating correctly.” After that, low- and high-speed taxi tests will follow before the first flight.

Kendall said there will be seed money for the unmanned systems in the fiscal 2023 request, but serious money will follow in fiscal 2024. The aim: “to get meaningful operational capability into the hands of operators as quickly as possible,” Kendall said. “And that entails risk—and commitment.”