Jan. 8, 2024:
The Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program—which is developing autonomous, robotic partners of crewed aircraft, essential to the Air Force’s ability to generate mass in a future war—should take great strides in 2024, if Congress can approve a budget.
The first engineering and manufacturing development contracts for CCAs should be led this year, even as the Air Force continues to conduct heavy experimentation in human-machine teaming with surrogate systems. Lt. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, reported in September that an acquisition strategy has been built and approved for CCAs, but it hasn’t been shared publicly.
The CCA is envisioned as an uncrewed, relatively low-observable aircraft that can escort or coordinate with crewed aircraft, performing missions such as electronic warfare, defense suppression, as a communications node or as a flying extra magazine of weapons. Newly minted Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James C. Slife has also forecast CCAs will be used for transport, tanking, and other missions.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said that while there are things that can be done to move the CCA program forward—using authorized and appropriated fiscal 2023 funds—much of the program is considered a “new start,” and on hold until funding limits now in place with the budgetary continuing resolution (CR) are lifted. A yearlong CR would stymie the CCA program and be “a gift” to pacing threat China, Kendall has warned in numerous forums and interviews.
On Jan. 7, House and Senate leaders said they had tentatively reached a budget deal that would move the defense bill to completion before Feb. 2, when a government shutdown could be triggered, but the deal will require bipartisan support to pass.
In its fiscal 2024 budget request, the Air Force is seeking $5.8 billion for CCAs over the next five years; $392 million in FY24 alone. That figure is a small down payment on what is shaping up to be an enormous program. While Kendall set 1,000 CCAs as the minimum number the service needs—a figure he said was meant to let contractors know how seriously he views the program—he told the McAleese defense conference last March that “at the end of the day, we’ll end up with more than that. …It could be twice that number or more.”
Kendall has also said he needs the CCA to come in at no more than about a third of the cost of the F-35, which in the last acquisition lot cost about $80 million for the Air Force version, translating to a CCA unit cost of about $27 million. A force of 2,000 CCAs could thus be a $54 billion bill for the Air Force, not counting sustainment, upgrades, or inflation. Kendall also said that at those prices, the CCA is not meant to be expendable, but a workhorse system with an indefinite service life.
The Navy is pursuing its own CCAs, but White reported there is close cooperation between the services. The Navy could reveal new aspects of its CCA program in 2024, shedding light on joint efforts thus far.
CCA Milestones Expected in 2024
- Air Force contract award for an integrator of CCA “increment one.”
- Human-machine collaboration tests with F-16s and the X-62 VISTA aircraft serving as surrogates for a CCA.
- Establishment of a CCA test workforce and dedicated test infrastructure.
- Continued competition for CCA concepts, modularity and mission equipment, with “on-ramps” for contractors not picked in the first round.
- Navy disclosures about how it will integrate CCAs with the carrier air wing and non-carrier aviation activities.
- First report to Congress on the overall CCA plan for development, test, manufacture, and cost.
While the Air Force intends to narrow the field of companies vying for CCA work this year, service officials said, they will do their utmost to preserve competition as long as possible.
Breaking Defense reported in December that besides major airframe powerhouses Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Anduril are reportedly on the short list to develop the initial version of the CCA family of systems, although dozens of even smaller companies could get significant contracts for payloads, software, and upgrades. The CCA program has been touted from the outset as offering wide opportunities for “nontraditional” contractors, as it will depend on software, machine intelligence, and sensors available from commercial industry.
In September, Anduril bought Blue Force Technologies, which has been developing an autonomous and stealthy “red air” live-fly sparring partner for Air Combat Command’s fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 fighters, called “Fury.” General Atomics unveiled its “Gambit” series of uncrewed aircraft last spring, with optional external configurations optimized for sensing, fighter escort, defense suppression and ground attack, all using a common core to increase commonality and modularity.
Service acquisition executive Andrew Hunter has spoken of “on-ramps” for companies not picked in the initial rounds of the CCA program to participate in later stages or iterations.
But White has also said that competition will not go on forever. While he reported at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September that CCA competition will run in a “continuous loop,” he also said a single contractor will be chosen to be the integrator of the CCA. The first iteration is likely to comprise a common chassis, propulsion core, basic flight control computer and landing gear, around which will be built modular airframe and mission systems packages.
Kendall said at AFA’s conference that the CCA will come in “two increments.” After the first, more basic version, he said the second variant will be “more sophisticated” but didn’t elaborate.
He wants the first fielded capability with CCAs in 2028, ahead of the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, expected to see operational service circa 2030. That timetable would allow less than 48 months to get the CCA from the prototype stage to initial operational capability, but senior service officials say prototypes have already flown and the initial design is likely to be fairly mature from the program outset.
Kendall and Hunter have directed that operators and contractors be tightly partnered with requirement-setting entities to ensure that the very first examples of CCAs are combat-relevant and have the open mission systems architecture to accept frequent software and hardware upgrades.
Without specifically addressing the CCA program, Pentagon acquisition and sustainment executive William LaPlante, speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December, said he’s pushing the services to compete new programs as long as possible, to get the most cutting-edge ideas and technology and the best possible prices from contractors.
“You want to get as many people to a preliminary design review as you can,” he said, “however they get there: whether they’re using their own money, government money, or combination thereof. And then, boy, if you can [get] more than one to a critical design review (CDR), that’s even better.”
A critical design review—which usually happens after a program is in engineering and manufacturing development—is the milestone at which program officials deem a design to be stable and able to meet specified costs and performance.
On the B-21 program, LaPlante said, “we got the two teams, with government funding, up to a CDR quality” before selecting Northrop Grumman as the winner. “We had reasonably mature designs, and it really made all the difference,” he said. However, LaPlante acknowledged, “we live in a budget-constrained world. Our friends that are budget folks … [will] come to us and say, ‘Why are you holding two or three folks in that competition?’” to a critical design review. There will always be tension, he said, between budget demands and best practices.
“I would love to go back to where we were keeping multiple vendors on to … a CDR but … it’s going to be all about money,” LaPlante said. “When budgets are tight,” prolonging competition is often “what they look at.”
Hunter told DefenseScoop in late December that “our goal for CCA is continuous competition throughout the life of the program. So, you know, we’re not looking to ever skinny down to just one CCA manufacturer. Our expectation is we’ll have a range of CCA capability with continuous competition over time. And what we’re seeing at this stage is there’s enough capability in industry and there’s enough interest in industry to make that strategy viable.”
Lt. Gen. Richard G. Moore Jr., deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told Congress in budget testimony last spring that the first iteration of CCAs will be to “augment the combat force as shooters.” They would likely carry additional missiles for the F-22 and F-35, whose weapons bays can accommodate only a half-dozen, long-range air-to-air missiles. Kendall reported that the first CCA iterations will not depend on inventing anything new but will maximize existing technology and flight control algorithms explored and developed under the Skyborg program.
Gen. Mark D. Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, has urged the Air Force to put CCA technology “in the hands of the captains” who will have to fight alongside them, to both get fighter pilots comfortable with these systems and develop tactics to exploit their capabilities.
To that end, the Air Force is pursuing the Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model (VENOM) program this year, putting six autonomously configured F-16s in combat experiments with crewed fighters, to see how they can best collaborate.
VENOM is intended to generate thousands of software adjustments for each week of the experiments, dramatically advancing the rate at which software will be refined to be ready when CCAs join the force.
Maj. Gen. Evan C. Dertien, commander of the Air Force Test Center, said in October that he is building the test force that can bring all the various enabling elements of CCA operations together. These include Skyborg, VENOM, and the X-62 Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft (VISTA), which will explore and vet the tactics developed by VENOM and see how the autonomous software interprets the lessons learned by the other experiments and provides insight into how CCAs might behave in real-world combat.
“The work we’re doing on VISTA is really helping us advance autonomy and get after the workforce we need” to comprehensively test CCAs, Dertien said. Combined with data generated by the XQ-58 Valkyrie program, creating a data infrastructure and building the workforce, the Test Center is “starting the basics of fighter integration” of CCAs and human pilots. The first task will be to establish “the rule sets” that will keep experimenters safe while doing this work.
The Air Force requested $68 million for VENOM in fiscal 2024, while a collaborative experimental operations unit is slated for $394 million.
Hunter told DefenseScoop in late December that each iteration of CCA won’t necessarily “be more sophisticated” or “more advanced … than the last” but may focus on “different operational problems,” meaning the same airframe may be tweaked to address related missions.
The Air Force’s goal is “speed to ramp,” he said, but “it doesn’t mean we’re going to shortcut any of the necessary stages of the acquisition process.” The necessary engineering will be done to ensure “a viable, meaningful military operational capability. … We’re going to do them with a great deal of discipline on making sure that the requirements that we set are ones that we think are achievable in the near term to meet our projected fielding date. And then we’re going to work through those in a rapid fashion to get there.”
Although the CCA program remains highly classified at this point, Congress demanded an intense amount of oversight data about it in the 2024 defense spending bill, and more information could come to public light as those reports are submitted.
In the compromise House-Senate 2024 National Defense Authorization bill, the two houses directed the Secretary of Defense to provide updates every six months for the overall and unit costs of CCAs, and the estimated cost to operate both the fleet and each tail per year. Congress wants detailed assessments of the Technology Readiness Levels for all key subsystems on the jets, and a blow-by-blow listing of test events planned and executed, as well as specific reports on “major milestones” such as aircraft joins, first power-on, first flights, etc.
Lawmakers want the Secretary of Defense to provide “the highest acceptable cost” for each element of the program, as well as the “objective value indicating the lowest cost expected to be achieved.”
The first such report is due midyear.