Part-Time Wingmen: CCAs Won’t Always Be ‘Tethered’ to Crewed Platforms

Collaborative Combat Aircraft will be able to carry out missions without direction from crewed aircraft and may not always fly as their “wingmen,” in order to maximize employment flexibility, Air Force leaders developing and testing the new platforms said March 27.

In a panel discussion presented by Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, the four generals charged with bringing the CCA concept to fruition said the service has embarked on on a modeling and simulation campaign to figure out how to make CCAs as useful and cost-imposing on an enemy as possible, while making progress on developmental, operational and testing fronts simultaneously. They would not, however, divulge expected program milestones.

Asked whether CCAs will be “tethered” to crewed platforms or carry out their own missions without such pairings, Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, Air Combat Command’s director of plans, programs. and requirements, replied “Yes.”

In many cases, he said, “we will tether, in terms of range and speed and payloads and capabilities. And in other areas, we will untether in terms of geographic location [and] mission generation” to complicate an enemy’s targeting scheme.

“And then we will be able to congeal our forces [in the] time and place of our choosing,” Jobe added.

The capability to act either as a manned aircraft partner, an independently-operating platform, or as part of a group of CCAs without direct human supervision will be basic to the new systems, Jobe said.

“We’re going to have the ability to perform maneuvers in close concert with a fighter-type aircraft or an [Next-Generation Air Dominance] platform itself, and then there are other cases where we will have swarms doing things on a platform to platform—CCA to CCA—or weapon-to-weapon collaboration level,” he said.

Brig. Gen. (Maj. Gen. select) Dale R. White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, said he and Jobe have had discussions of whether “these assets … show up in the same place at the same time” as crewed aircraft, or whether they take off and land as a unit, but there are no hard rules yet about how this will work.

“First and foremost is recognizing we’re going to have to do some real growth on the autonomy piece,” White said, “Because the foundation of autonomy … is trusting.”

On the issue of trust, White noted ACC commander Gen. Mark Kelly’s public comments that his pilots need to become comfortable both operating in the same space as CCAs and trusting them to carry out their assigned tasks. White agreed with Kelly that “we have to put these things in the hands of the captains” and let them take the lead in developing tactics and concepts of operations.

The ultimate concept of operations will depend on the results of modeling and simulation now being done, Air Force Research Laboratory commander Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle said.

The question of tethering is “one we can test out” and, in conjunction with both operators, technologists, acquirers, and testers, “look at modeling and sim and analyses [as to] how can we push the state of the art,” Pringle said.

Modeling and simulation is “risk-free, it’s affordable, and it allows you to explore … examples or scenarios where it’s tethered, where it’s not tethered, where you have mass or not,” Pringle said, adding that she wants Air Combat Command be “uncomfortable … so that it pushes the boundaries of where we are today. And … get further down the road faster, like we need to.”

All four panelists agreed on the need to get a CCA digital model into the Joint Simulation Environment, a simulation/wargaming engine that determines the relative value of platforms with certain characteristics, which in turn helps define those attributes and the optimum numbers to have on hand.

White added that the flexibility of CCAs can’t be “limited by the design” of the material solution.

“The flexibility has to be introduced at the mission planning level, which means the material solution has to be very open in terms of what it’s capable of doing,” he said.

Pringle said the Skyborg autonomous flight program, which will underwrite most CCAs, will never be “done” and “handed over” to the acquisition community. It will be an iterative system which will continue to be refined in concert with operators, testers, and industry, with the goal being that the operators trust it.

Another area that is getting a hard look is how runway independent CCAs will be. Jobe said “there’s varying scales of that … and we’re going to [look at] lots of different technology concepts.”

Initially, “we’re going to do what we know works today, and we’re going to try to give ourselves maximum flexibility in terms of where we can base things out of, and mission-generate, to complicate intermediate tracking of our scheme of maneuver.” He described it as “a math problem,” and there are “expert …captains and majors” working it now.

Pringle said she doesn’t think it’s too early to close in on “what the design solution” should be relative to whether CCAs need to operate from runways.

“We’ve looked at varying degrees of this, and as we … start to dissect the problem,” it’s clear that the answer lies in rapid iteration of designs with a feedback loop from operators, Pringle said, adding that the service is working with industry “to build the propulsion systems that are really needed.”

Maj. Gen. Evan C. Dertien, commander of the Air Force Test Center, said “there’s tons of room for innovation” about the method of launching and recovering CCAs, but he thinks the method of recovery should drive the debate.

“I’m actually more concerned about the landing problem. Because once you land it, you have to refuel it, you have to reload weapons or re-update the sensor. And that’s really what’s going to drive” the concept of operations, he said.

Dertien also highlighted questions that need to be answered for the landing problem, including: “What kind of crew do you need there? How quickly can you turn it? … If you recover it via parachute, that’s probably [going to take] a lot longer than if it lands on landing gear,” he said. “So to me, it’s all about the combat turn. And we need to figure out … the right takeoff and landing environment that allows us to rapidly turn these back into the fight.”

Because the Air Force’s planned Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter will rely so heavily on CCAs to accomplish its air superiority mission, Dertien added, CCAs are the more pressing problem and their concept of operations should be nailed down as quickly as possible.

How quickly that will happen remains uncertain, as panelists declined to offer planned timetables of CCA progress, but Jobe said there are “100 mini-milestones this year.”