CCA Contract Expected in Fall; First Versions Under Construction

The Air Force will likely award a contract or contracts for the first increment of Collaborative Combat Aircraft in late September or early October, sources familiar with the program said. It’s not yet been decided if the Air Force will carry one or both of its Increment 1 competitors—Anduril and General Atomics—into the next phase of development.

Prior to contract award, both companies will have to pass “a CDR-like review,” an industry source said, referring to Critical Design Review, a benchmark that typically takes place after a program has been underway and under contract for two or more years. With CCA, though, the goal is to put actual operational examples into the hands of operators within two years of contract award.

Anduril and General Atomics were picked for the CCA Increment 1 phase in April. Unlike previous awards, the service said it will allow non-selected competitors to vie for production of the ultimately selected airplane.  

The Air Force’s goal is to quickly produce 100 of the autonomous aircraft and begin experimenting with them operationally, using lessons learned to refine their design and capabilities. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said he sees an Air Force requirement for at least 1,000 and as many as 2,000 CCAs by the mid-2030s. He also sees the unit cost of CCA coming in at around a third of the cost of an F-35—about $27 million.

On the June 29 edition of “The Merge” podcast, Anduril and General Atomics executives discussed the state of their entries and both said numerous times they view the two offerings as “complementary,” so it is possible that both are expected to advance to the next phase, which may or may not carry the traditional description “engineering and manufacturing development.”

Much of the CCA effort is geared to “what’s available now, and what can we get now, instead of highly optimizing a platform that’s going to take us 10 years,” said Anduril vice president for air dominance Diem Salmon.

The Air Force is going to get “two very complimentary capabilities that they’ll be able to kind of procure and scale, and everybody wins,” she said.

Anduril’s offering is based on its “Fury” design, which started out as being targeted toward a stealthy sparring partner for F-35s and F-22s in live-fly mock dogfights; Anduril acquired the design when it bought Blue Force Technologies.

General Atomics’ CCA is based closely on its XQ-67A Off-Board Sensing Station (OBSS), being developed for the Air Force Research Laboratory. That aircraft flew for the first time this spring, and sources said it very closely resembles what GA will offer for the CCA.   

An industry source said AFRL also planned an Off Board Weapon Station (OBWS) program that would partner with the OBSS as a hunter-killer two-aircraft system—but that has been subsumed into the CCA effort.

Mike Atwood, General Atomics vice president for advanced programs, said on The Merge podcast that his company’s CCA is already well under construction. Salmon said the program requires some “up-front risk” in terms of spending company funds to develop prototypes before a contract is awarded.

Both companies are privately held, giving each some flexibility to invest in independent R&D that publicly-held major primes may not have.

General Atomics is also working on the “LongShot” program, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency effort to obtain extended range for air-to-air missiles by launching a pod that can carry them closer to airborne enemies before release.

The Air Force and industry sources have confirmed that Increment 1 will be focused on an air-to-air capability, equipped with AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles the Air Force would buy in atypically large numbers in the fiscal 2025 budget request.

Sources said the Air Force envisions CCAs fanned out on a wide front, as many as six each controlled by a single crewed fifth-generation F-22 or F-35. The dispersed formation will create a large synthetic aperture radar net which can more precisely spot and target an adversary’s fifth-generation aircraft, allowing friendly forces to more quickly engage them and buy back some of the “first-look, first-shot” capability lost in recent years. It isn’t clear what kind of radar or shared radar the aircraft could use, as high-end Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radars are expensive and might break the cost ceiling for a CCA.

Atwood said part of the program requires a plan for quickly fabricating aircraft at scale, something he said can be accomplished at GA’s San Diego-area facilities where production of MQ-9s is winding down. The GA version of CCA will also re-use some parts of the Reaper, further accelerating production. He said GA could deliver the first CCA inside of 24 months, “if not a year.”

Salmon said Anduril is similarly able to move quickly, having an “in-house composites shop,” although Atwood said CCAs may use more metal than composites, to ease production and reduce cost.

“We’re actually falling back on … hybrid structures: metal frames with composite skins,” Atwood said on The Merge.

Both executives said a major element of CCA Increment 1 will be developing trust among fighter pilots that the CCAs will go where they are meant to and do what the pilots tell them to.

Atwood said General Atomics is flying a number of its MQ-20 Avenger stealthy, jet-powered aircraft that are a step up from the MQ-9 Reaper, and “it’s time to get off the … Nevada Test and Training Range” and into the hands of operators.

An industry source said General Atomics has built seven Avengers, of which two are owned by the company and five are being used experimentally by other government entities. The Avenger has over 38,000 flight hours across 5,000 missions. Avenger has become “the surrogate CCA for autonomy testing,” the source said, having flown with “every autonomous software out there.”

“The technology is here,” Atwood said, that CCAs can be trusted, and Salmon said human aircrews just need “experience with it.”

Atwood said the Air Force has “honed in” on the appropriate size and capability of the CCA over many years, saying the X-45 Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle was too big, while the Kratos XQ-58 proved too small.

Planning for a future autonomous aircraft beyond CCA is well underway, Atwood said. The next generation will be “much more survivable, autonomous, … cognitive.” He described it as being developed under DARPA’s LongShot program.

The Air Force funds the CCA in the same line item as the Next-Generation Air Dominance program, and in recent weeks, senior service leaders have voiced concern that NGAD may not survive as it is now structured: a multi-hundred million dollar, crewed successor to the frontline F-22.  It may be that CCA is moving so rapidly that an autonomous version of NGAD—which would likely be far less costly than a piloted version—could be possible on the timelines required by the Air Force.

General Atomics is also looking toward future CCAs with its Gambit program, wherein various planforms could ride on a single common chassis and offer modular capability and modular construction. The high end of the Gambit line is envisioned as a hybrid-engined, high-altitude flying wing with 60 hours of endurance; roughly double that which can be achieved with the Reaper. GA is developing the engine for this variant, but DARPA is also funding Northrop Grumman to build a similar experimental aircraft, the XRQ-73 SHEPARD, for Series Hybrid Electric Propulsion AiR Demonstration, which would also have a hybrid electric powerplant.