US Air Force faces key questions for next-gen fighters’ drone wingmen


The US Air Force hopes to develop and field autonomous combat drones that would augment piloted fighters “in the mid to late 2020s,” Andrew Hunter, the Air Force’s top acquisition official, said in August.

WASHINGTON — Over the past year, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has made it clear that “Loyal Wingman”-style combat drones, partnered with stealth fighters like the F-35 or its yet-to-be-revealed sixth-generation fighter, will be a key element of the service’s future tactical aircraft inventory.

Kendall’s vision is that pilots of aircraft such as the sixth-gen Next Generation Air Dominance fighter, F-35 and F-22 would be able to command one to five drones, “calling plays” that the drones would then be able to accomplish autonomously — although the decision to use a weapon will still fall to human operators.

But big questions still remain: Will the service begin what Kendall has called a “Collaborative Combat Aircraft” program of record in the upcoming fiscal 2024 budget? How many types of drones will it seek to procure? And what role will these novel aircraft play on future battlefields?

As the Air Force delineates the technologies that will make up its Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems — which is known to include a suite of CCA drones along with a manned, sixth generation fighter and the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile currently under development — its leadership is also drilling down on a strategy to rapidly develop and field CCA drones “in the mid to late 2020s,” Andrew Hunter, the Air Force’s top acquisition official, said in August.

However, there’s an ever-important caveat: the size of the defence budget.

“We are resource-constrained, and we are focused very much on capability,” Hunter said. “So we can’t afford to do four different kinds [of aircraft] where none of which actually develops into an operational capability.”

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