The Air Force is “going down the path” toward much greater use of uncrewed aircraft but must be careful not to overload them with capability, lest they become too costly, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said Feb. 13.
Speaking at a Brookings Institution event, Brown said the Air Force is looking for “much more capability for uncrewed aircraft,” and sees them collaborating with the fifth-generation F-35 and future Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighters, potentially being controlled from other platforms that are in the vicinity of the fight.
But the Air Force must be “pragmatic” about the cost, Brown noted, particularly for those Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCAs) that are meant to be “attritable,” meaning they are inexpensive enough that their loss would be acceptable.
“At what point do you say, this is no longer ‘attritable’ because you’re putting so much capability into [it]” Brown said. “They’re almost as expensive as the crewed aircraft. … You’re spending so much money and then you go, ‘OK … you want to get that one back. … So we’re looking at how we define these.”
Over the course of the hourlong discussion, Brown touched on a host of other topics, including speculation that a fight with China could come in the next few years; the ramifications of the recently downed Chinese surveillance balloon; the difficulty of getting Congress to let go of older systems; and the upcoming fiscal 2024 budget.
Echoing previous comments from other leaders, Brown said the direction the Air Force will chart for CCAs should become clear in the fiscal 2024 defense budget set to be unveiled next month.
“As we look into our future budgets, there’s three aspects of this,” Brown explained.
“There’s the platform itself. [Then] there is the autonomy that goes with it. And then there’s how we organize, train and equip to build the organizations to go with it, and we’re trying to do all those in parallel,” Brown said. Air Combat Command is known to be exploring how future squadrons might be structured to combine both crewed aircraft and the CCAs that will work with them.
The Air Force thinks a CCA “can be a sensor. It can be a shooter. It can be a jammer.” But is now primarily focused on “how [it is] teamed with a crewed aircraft,” Brown noted.
The service is looking at whether a CCA could be operated from the back of a KC-46 or from the E-7 Wedgetail warning and control airplane the Air Force is hoping to accelerate to service, or “from a fighter cockpit,” Brown said. “We’re thinking through those aspects.”
He added that the development of CCAs will have to involve “some level of risk,” in order to find out what works and what doesn’t, and there will be iterations of the capability.
“It may not work exactly” at the outset, “but we’re going to learn something, each evolution, as we go forward. And I think that’s the way we’ve got to … think about … Collaborative Combat Aircraft,” Brown said.
ACC chief Gen. Mark D. Kelly has said that the CCAs, which will be autonomous, need time to be integrated with crewed fighters so that pilots can become comfortable that they will do what they’re told and not create any hazards to flying or the mission.
Budget Big Picture
While CCAs will form a key part of the Air Force’s 2024 budget, some uncertainty remains over the Pentagon’s overall topline in the coming year, given growing appetite among some lawmakers for cuts counterbalanced by threats posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s aggression along several fronts. Brown declined to predict a growth in funding but did say he saw “some positive things” along those lines.
But “I tell you, no matter what the topline is, we’ve got tough decisions to make,” he said, echoing consistent warnings from Kendall that the fiscal 2024 budget request will include hard choices between new systems and extant ones.
“I would really not like to see a … yearlong continuing resolution, because all we do is give our adversaries a year to move forward,” he added. “We have a number of new starts in the FY  budget, and if we go to continuing resolution, we can’t start those.”
He added “you just can’t buy back time.” The Ukraine situation and the balloon shoot-down have “helped to sharpen our focus,” he said.
Progress on Capitol Hill
Brown’s signature “accelerate change or lose” mantra is starting to gain traction in Congress, particularly when it comes to retiring older, less relevant platforms to invest in new ones—but the service is hampered by having more secret programs than the other services, he said.
“It’s hard to make a transition, to let something go, to retire something, if you can’t see what the future looks like. And so I’ve spent a lot of time engaging with members and their staff to … provide them unclassified talking points associated with we’re trying to get done,” Brown said, noting that Congress finally relented and allowed the Air Force to start retiring A-10s in the last year.
Amid intense speculation as to if and when China might make a move against Taiwan—with a litany of predictions ranging from 2024 to 2027 and beyond—Brown said such conjecture is “not necessarily helpful” and the Air Force is preparing to fight “today” as well as “next decade” and every time in between.
He did say he does not believe that a conflict with China is “inevitable,” as long as the Air Force is postured to deter and, if necessary, to defeat aggression from China or elsewhere.
That, he said, is “what we’re really trying to … do,”—“to make sure we’re going to be ready, and that’s where the real focus is … and think about it with a sense of urgency.” He also said the Air Force is striving not to “fight the last war” by being innovative and thinking frankly about “how conflict might evolve.”
With regard to China, he said the Air Force is also trying to think “asymmetrically.”
Brown offered limited comments about the Air Force’s Feb. 4 shoot-down of a Chinese intelligence-gathering balloon, as well as other unidentified objects this past weekend.
“We as a military have the responsibility for homeland defense. And we take that seriously,” he said.
The balloon and other recent airborne objects “got all of our attention” and spurred a drive for “better scrutiny of our airspace,” he said. Warning radars have been adjusted to slower-moving objects “which means we’re seeing more things than we would normally,” he said. “But we don’t fully appreciate … [or] understand exactly what we’re seeing.”