Anduril and General Atomics to Develop New Collaborative Combat Aircraft for Air Force

The Air Force has picked Anduril and General Atomics to continue developing their autonomous Collaborative Combat Aircraft concepts over designs offered by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, the service announced on April 24. In a non-traditional move, the companies that were not picked will still be able to compete to produce the resulting aircraft.

“The Department of the Air Force made the decision to continue funding Anduril and General Atomics for detailed designs, manufacture, and testing of production-representative test articles under the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program,” the service said in a press release.  

“The companies not selected to build these production-representative CCA vehicles … will continue to be part of the broader industry partner vendor pool consisting of more than 20 companies to compete for future efforts, including future production contracts,” the service said.

Since before the CCA program officially started, Air Force officials have discussed the possibility of separating design and production in order to attract companies that could design advanced aircraft but perhaps not manufacture them.  

An Air Force spokesperson said the non-selected entrants can compete for production, but must do so “at their own expense.”

Anduril is a recent entry in the uncrewed aircraft field, founded in 2017. The Silicon Valley startup purchased Blue Force Technologies and its “Fury” stealthy aggressor drone program in the fall of 2023. Conversely, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems is an industry veteran, having built the MQ-1 Predator and then the MQ-9 Reaper remotely-piloted hunter-killer drones for the Air Force since the 1990s. It has promoted its “Gambit” concept for CCAs, which features five platforms optimized for various missions and built around a common core comprised of an engine, keel, and landing gear.

The selections are for “Increment 1” of the CCA program, and a winner will be chosen in 2026. The Air Force also plans an “Increment 2,” which will get underway next year, but specifics of those platforms have not been publicly defined.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has said the service plans to build at least 1,000 and as many as 2,000 CCAs through the mid-2030s, at a cost of about $30 million per copy. The concept is for CCAs to give the Air Force “affordable mass” to deal with a growing and highly capable threat posed by China, given that the Air Force can’t build enough aircraft or train enough pilots to overwhelm a peer adversary with manned platforms alone.

Though future iterations of the CCA could perform missions such as electronic warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and dogfighting, their initial role will be to carry additional munitions for F-35s, F-22s, and the Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter, which will succeed the F-22. To be stealthy, those aircraft must carry weapons internally, which limits their combat load.

Lt. Gen. Richard G. Moore, Jr., deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said in an AFA  Warfighters in Action event earlier this month that the “role we’re going to focus on first is the ability to augment the shooters and to add additional rails to the formations that we send forward.” The need is to “increase the number of weapons in a formation.” Those other roles are “not our focus” for Increment 1, he said.

While initial plans called for Increment 2 to be a more complex, very stealthy aircraft, wargames over the last year—some of which were run by AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies—found that a high-end CCA was not as useful in a Pacific campaign as a greater number of less-sophisticated autonomous drones.

Commenting on the selection, Kendall said the CCA started “just over two years ago” as part of his “Operational Imperatives” slate of new technologies the Department of the Air Force needs to compete with China. He praised the speed of the program and the quality of the entries.  

“The progress we’ve made is a testament to the invaluable collaboration with industry, whose investment alongside the Air Force has propelled this initiative forward. It’s truly encouraging to witness the rapid execution of this program,” Kendall said.

The Air Force “executed an acquisition and funding strategy for CCA with early operator, technologist, acquirer, and industry teaming to quickly iterate requirements given our fielding timelines,” he added. “Continuous competition is a cornerstone at every stage of this program. The transparency and teamwork between industry and government really accelerated how quickly we could mature the CCA program.”

Andrew Hunter, Air Force acquisition executive, said continued collaboration “with both current and potential industry partners remains pivotal. Their expertise, innovation, and resources are instrumental in driving this initiative forward, ensuring its success and impact on future operations.”

Kendall said at the AFA Warfare Symposium in February that he hoped to carry three competitors into the next stage of the CCA program, but that budget constraints would make that challenging.

The choice of only two indicates that the service couldn’t afford a broader competition or the industry balked at more cost-sharing in the program. Lockheed Martin chief executive officer Jim Taiclet said on the company’s first-quarter earnings call on April 23 that the government must be prepared to pay a “risk premium” on contracts where new technology is being invented—such as CCAs—as many companies have taken heavy losses bidding aggressively on fixed-price development projects.

The exercise of the Air Force’s option “does not exclude any of the vendors from competing for the future Increment 1 production contract,” the USAF said.

Moreover, the Department of the Air Force is “exploring international partnerships, to include potential Foreign Military Sales, as part of the CCA program. These partnerships will help provide further affordable mass at scale while driving horizontal integration and interoperability across our international partnerships,” the release stated. “All current and potential future industry partners from the CCA vendor pool will compete for this follow-on effort.”

The CCA is budgeted as part of the NGAD program; one element of the “family of systems” that make up the NGAD concept. The Air Force asked for $577.1 million for the CCA in its fiscal 2025 budget request and plans to spend $8.9 billion on it across the future-years defense plan that runs through FY29.

Brian Schimpf, Anduril’s chief executive officer and co-founder, said in a release that the company was “honored to be selected for this unprecedented opportunity, which signals a demand for continued expansion of the defense industrial base.

“Anduril is proud to pave the way for other non-traditional defense companies to compete and deliver on large-scale programs,” Schimpf said. The company plans to work to put CCAs into the hands of Airmen “as quickly as possible,” he added.

General Atomics noted that the selection follows a successful preliminary design review of its offering earlier this year.

The CCA program “aims to be a force multiplier, developing a low-cost, modular, unmanned aircraft equipped with advanced sensors or weapons and operating in collaborative teams with the next generation of manned combat aircraft,” the company said.

It also noted that its XQ-67A Off-Board Sensing Station, built for the Air Force Research Laboratory to explore autonomous drones as communications nodes, has recently completed two test flights. GA-ASI called the aircraft a “CCA prototype.”

“The CCA program redefines the future of aviation and will shape the USAF acquisition model to deliver affordable combat mass to the warfighter at the speed of relevancy,” said Mike Atwood, vice president of advanced programs for GA-ASI.

The company also said it will continue to test CCA technologies on its stealthy MQ-20 Avenger uncrewed aircraft “to accelerate the readiness of operational autonomy.”