On January 25th, the United States Air Force announced they had selected five companies to develop autonomous aircraft for the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program.
The selected companies are Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Anduril, and General Atomics.
The Collaborative Combat Air program is an initiative by the Air Force to create autonomous aircraft that is capable of operating in tandem with manned aircraft as well as performing a variety of missions in support of manned aircraft.
The Air Force plans to invest $5.8 billion over the next five years into this program. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall expects to create and deploy 1,000 CCAs, but expects that number to greatly increase.
According to Air Force Technology, there will be two CCAs partnered with each of the 200 NGAD platforms as well as 300 F-35s. The price to produce a single CCA under this program is expected to be between $20.5 million and $27.5 million according to The Drive.
What Makes These Drones Special:
CCAs provide the ability to have increased operational capacity in highly contested zones. Created with autonomous software that allows for highly efficient information gathering and distribution, this allows for warfighters to maintain awareness, even in environments with multiple advanced threats. In a near-peer or great-power conflict, the efficient dissemination of combat information will be key to victory. These drone’s ability to reduce threats to manned aircraft is also a big selling point. Whether it is suppressing air defense systems or targeting communication centers, these drones are able to engage in dangerous kinetic actions without the loss of American or allied lives. These drones can also act as
Viewing the different companies CCA systems, modularity and interoperability seems to be a foundational idea in the development of these aircraft. Modularity, as these aircraft can be produced as a single variant, but configured at their destination, lessening general production time and providing for a greater “capacity to impact” on the battlefield. Interoperability, because these systems are able to operate with each other, with manned aircraft, and they are able to be managed under one system.
The Death of the Manned Fighter?
For many, the creation of advanced autonomous air platforms, such as the ones being created the the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program represents the coffin lid being fitted on manned combat aircraft. Institutionally, there is deep support in the United States for continued usage and development of manned fighters (as seen in the 6th generation fighter development program known as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD)) . Culturally, it is unpopular with the American populace to give a wide degree of control to AI platforms. According to a poll by the AI Policy Institute, 63 percent of Americans want regulation to actively prevent superintelligent AI from being created. Tactically, manned aircraft are much less vulnerable to electronic countermeasures and loss of communication, which are very likely to occur in a near-peer or great-power conflict.
However, there is likely to be a massive utilization in the future of combat drones, and they will likely seriously outnumber manned combat platforms in a future near-peer or great-power conflict. Cheaper and faster production, less possible loss of life, and ease of configuration present a strong argument to policymakers. Only time will tell what the future may hold, but Maverick’s next wingman will likely not be Goose, likely, it will be Fury.