The Future of Air Combat: The OBSS Program and Its Expansive Vision with General Atomics’ XQ-67A


On November 18, 2021, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) achieved a significant milestone in the realm of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) technology. Employing two of its Avenger® Unmanned Aircraft Systems, each outfitted with a Lockheed Martin Legion Pod®, GA-ASI successfully demonstrated the transmission of long-range air threat data to a Command Center. This feat marked the first instance of utilizing industry-funded assets to showcase the fusion of passively captured sensor data through advanced algorithms.

Michael Atwood, GA-ASI’s Senior Director of Advanced Programs, underscored the significance of this achievement, stating, “This first-time, industry-funded flight test demonstrates the maturing capabilities of UAS platforms and sensors to deliver fused sensor data.” The collaboration between GA-ASI and Lockheed Martin yielded promising results, indicating the potential for collaborative autonomous platforms with advanced sensing to enhance persistent, shared air domain awareness.

During the two-hour flight over the high desert of southern California, the Avenger UAVs equipped with Legion Pods detected multiple fast-moving aircraft in the vicinity. The Legion Pod’s IRST21® infrared search and track system, coupled with Lockheed Martin’s fusion software, seamlessly integrated sensor data from both pods in real-time. Subsequently, the Avengers transmitted this fused data to the ground station, showcasing the effectiveness of the collaborative effort.

Scott Roberson, Director of Sensors and Global Sustainment Advanced Programs at Lockheed Martin, emphasized the significance of this achievement, stating, “This is the first time IRST systems on multiple autonomous aircraft have delivered merged air threat data to users on the ground.” Such advancements contribute to the development of a common operating picture, thereby enhancing situational awareness in joint operations across domains.

The fusion technology showcased in this demonstration had previously undergone testing during the Northern Edge operational exercise earlier in the year, where it was integrated into F-15-equipped Legion Pods and datalinks. The Legion Pod, a proven long-range passive IRST sensor, has been deployed on various platforms, including different types of Avenger UAVs. With production already underway, the Legion Pod stands ready to address real-world missions at the discretion of U.S. Government customers in urgent situations.

Looking ahead, Lockheed Martin plans to expand the application of Legion Pod technology, with upcoming tests aimed at integrating it with F-16s and exploring sensor fusion between F-15s and F-16s. The sensor’s open design facilitates support for Joint All Domain Operations requirements, accommodating alternative datalink architectures.

Moreover, IRSTs offer a complementary capability to radars, scanning for threats passively without emitting electromagnetic radiation, thereby reducing the risk of alerting adversaries. When integrated into multiple OBSS drones networked together and operating forward, IRST systems could swiftly triangulate the location of potential threats. This information could then be relayed to fighter aircraft, air defense systems, or other drones for effective prosecution.

The Open Mission System (OMS) architecture of the Legion Pod sensor allows for rapid integration across different aircraft platforms, thereby reducing the complexity and timeline associated with integration efforts on new platforms. This versatility underscores the adaptability of the technology in meeting evolving mission requirements.

GA-ASI, a leading designer and manufacturer of remotely piloted aircraft systems, continues to push the boundaries of innovation in the field of unmanned aviation. With a proven track record exemplified by the Predator® RPA series and the Lynx® Multi-mode Radar, GA-ASI remains committed to delivering long-endurance, mission-capable aircraft equipped with integrated sensor and data link systems.

Similarly, Lockheed Martin, a global security and aerospace company, continues to spearhead advancements in technology systems and services. With a workforce of approximately 114,000 employees worldwide, Lockheed Martin’s commitment to innovation underscores its pivotal role in shaping the future of aerospace and defense.

In a significant revelation, the U.S. Air Force has shared new insights into the Off-Board Sensing Station (OBSS) program, shedding light on its secretive developments and objectives. This disclosure follows the maiden flight of General Atomics’ XQ-67A, a drone developed under the OBSS initiative. Notably, the existence of a companion drone, named the Off-Board Weapon Station (OBWS), equipped with enhanced performance and weapons deployment capabilities, has been acknowledged, although its current status remains shrouded in mystery.

The Stealthy Guardian: Exploring the Enigmatic World of the OBSS Program and Gambit Drones

Since its inception more than two years ago, the OBSS (Offensive-Counter-Air Sensor System) program has remained shrouded in secrecy, leaving analysts and enthusiasts alike to piece together its purpose and capabilities from limited information. Initially perceived as an endeavor aimed at extending the sensor reach of crewed combat aircraft, particularly in the air-to-air role, OBSS has hinted at a focus on cutting-edge technologies such as infrared search and track (IRST) systems.

General Atomics, a pioneer in the realm of unmanned aerial systems, has been at the forefront of showcasing capabilities relevant to OBSS through its stealthy Avenger drones. These Avenger drones, equipped with podded IRST sensors, have participated in rigorous testing scenarios, both real and simulated, alongside various other platforms. The tests have notably delved into the realms of autonomy and artificial intelligence-enabled operations, particularly in air-to-air combat scenarios.

The significance of IRSTs lies in their immunity to radio frequency jamming and their ability to detect stealthy targets that evade traditional radar detection. In an era where stealth technology proliferates among both crewed and uncrewed aircraft, as well as cruise missiles, IRSTs provide a crucial edge in situational awareness. Moreover, their passive scanning capabilities mitigate the risk of alerting adversaries to their detection, offering a stealthier means of surveillance.

The potential deployment of multiple OBSS drones equipped with IRSTs, operating in a networked environment, holds immense strategic value. By triangulating the location of potential threats and swiftly relaying this information to fighter aircraft, air defense systems, or other drones, OBSS has the capacity to revolutionize situational awareness and response mechanisms.

Beyond IRSTs, OBSS drones could integrate a plethora of other sensors, including modular radars and electronic surveillance measures suites. Furthermore, they may play a pivotal role in advancing the concept of cooperative autonomy, wherein uncrewed combat aircraft collaborate seamlessly with crewed platforms. These drones could serve as distributed sensor nodes, electronic warfare assets, and even execute kinetic attacks under human operator supervision.

Artist rendering of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) Gambit 1 autonomous sensing platform. Image: GA-ASI

Infrared Search and Track (IRST) Systems: Revolutionizing Modern Warfare and Surveillance

The development and deployment of Infrared Search and Track (IRST) systems represent a pivotal advancement in the domains of military surveillance and combat strategies. Unlike traditional radar systems, which rely on radio waves to detect and track objects, IRST systems utilize infrared technology to identify and monitor heat signatures. This method offers significant advantages in stealth and precision, making IRST systems a crucial component in the modern warfare arsenal. This article delves into the evolution, operational mechanisms, strategic importance, and future prospects of IRST systems, providing a comprehensive overview of their role in shaping contemporary and future military capabilities.

Historical Evolution and Technological Development

The inception of IRST technology dates back to the Cold War era, around the 1950s and 1960s, when the need for advanced surveillance and targeting systems became apparent amidst the escalating tensions between superpowers. The primary objective was to devise a system capable of detecting aircraft without emitting detectable signals that could be intercepted or jammed by the enemy. The first generation of IRST systems was rudimentary, offering limited range and accuracy. However, the potential of infrared technology for stealth operations was undeniable, sparking continuous research and development.

Significant technological advancements over the decades have drastically improved the capabilities of IRST systems. Modern IRST systems, equipped with highly sensitive infrared sensors and advanced signal processing algorithms, can detect and track multiple targets at extended ranges, even in challenging environmental conditions. The integration of IRST systems into fighter aircraft, naval vessels, and ground-based surveillance platforms has significantly enhanced the detection capabilities without compromising the stealth of these assets.

Operational Mechanisms and Advantages

The operational principle of an IRST system revolves around the detection of infrared radiation emitted or reflected by objects. Every object with a temperature above absolute zero emits infrared radiation, which these systems can detect and analyze. The heart of an IRST system is its infrared sensor, typically a cooled or uncooled focal plane array, capable of detecting subtle differences in temperature between an object and its background.

One of the key advantages of IRST systems over radar is their passive nature. Since IRST systems do not emit any radiation, they are virtually undetectable by enemy forces, providing a significant stealth advantage. This characteristic is particularly beneficial in air-to-air combat scenarios, where avoiding detection can be the difference between success and failure. Additionally, IRST systems are immune to radar jamming and spoofing techniques, making them reliable in electronic warfare environments.

Strategic Importance in Modern Warfare

The strategic importance of IRST systems in modern warfare cannot be overstated. In aerial combat, IRST-equipped fighter jets can detect and engage enemy aircraft beyond visual range without revealing their position. This capability is crucial for gaining the upper hand in air superiority. In naval warfare, IRST systems can detect and track incoming threats, such as anti-ship missiles and stealth aircraft, providing critical early warning information.

Furthermore, the integration of IRST systems with other sensor technologies, such as radar and electronic warfare systems, enables a comprehensive situational awareness that enhances decision-making and tactical planning. The ability to operate effectively in environments where traditional radar systems are compromised or ineffective underscores the strategic value of IRST technology in contemporary conflict scenarios.

Future Prospects and Challenges

The future of IRST technology appears promising, with ongoing research aimed at further enhancing sensitivity, range, and discrimination capabilities. The development of compact, power-efficient systems will enable broader integration across a range of platforms, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and small tactical units. The evolution of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms also presents opportunities for improving the automatic detection and classification of targets, reducing the cognitive load on operators and increasing reaction times.

However, the advancement of IRST technology is not without challenges. The increasing sophistication of stealth technologies and countermeasures requires continuous innovation in IRST sensor capabilities and signal processing techniques. Additionally, the integration of IRST systems into existing and future platforms necessitates careful consideration of factors such as weight, power consumption, and interoperability with other systems.

Exploring the XQ-67A OBSS and Gambit Drones by General Atomics

The OBSS (Off-Board Sensing Station) program and the Gambit family of drones, developed by General Atomics, represent a significant leap forward in unmanned aerial capabilities for the U.S. Air Force. The OBSS program, initiated by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), aims to deploy unmanned aircraft capable of advancing ahead of fighter jets to relay targeting information and other critical threat data back to the manned fighters.

In February 2024, General Atomics unveiled its drone offering for this program, the XQ-67A, which is poised to enter flight testing. This vehicle, part of the Gambit family of aircraft proposed for the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, showcases the future of unmanned combat air vehicles with its focus on speed, accelerated design processes, and substantial capability enhancements​​.

In October 2021, the AFRL awarded General Atomics and Kratos identical $17.7 million OBSS development contracts, with a development period set for 12 months. General Atomics’ submission, the Gambit, underwent a critical design review, leading to the latest decision to proceed with its production and flight testing. The OBSS program is described as a quest for a modular and expendable unmanned aircraft with low maintenance costs, aiming to validate low-cost design and manufacturing approaches for the attritable class of aircraft through flight demonstration​​.

The Gambit drone family, unveiled by General Atomics in March of the previous year, showcases a unique approach to drone design, emphasizing modularity and the ability to perform a variety of missions. Built around a common core module, the Gambit family includes several distinct aircraft, each designed for specific tasks such as scouting, combat, training, and stealth missions. This modular approach, where a common Gambit Core encapsulates essential functions and accounts for roughly 70 percent of the price among the various models, aims to lower costs, increase interoperability, and enhance the development of variants. The four initial models — Gambit 1 (a scout and surveillance drone), Gambit 2 (an air-to-air fighter), Gambit 3 (a training tool), and Gambit 4 (a combat reconnaissance-focused model) — demonstrate the versatility and strategic capabilities that unmanned systems can bring to modern air combat and reconnaissance missions​​.

This innovative approach to unmanned aerial systems, combining the strategic capabilities of the OBSS program with the modular design of the Gambit family, underscores a significant shift in military aviation. By leveraging advanced sensing, autonomous operations, and modular design, these programs aim to enhance the U.S. Air Force’s ability to conduct complex missions with improved efficiency, safety, and tactical advantage.

The linkage between the XQ-67A OBSS design and the Gambit drones, while not officially confirmed, is strongly suggested through various elements and disclosures by General Atomics. The XQ-67A, developed for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Off-Board Sensing Station (OBSS) program, shares key design principles and technological underpinnings with the Gambit family of drones. This connection is evidenced by the modular and adaptable design approach that characterizes both the OBSS’s XQ-67A and the Gambit drones.

General Atomics’ Gambit family, consisting of drones developed around a common core module, is intended for a wide range of missions, including air combat, reconnaissance, and surveillance. This common core module encapsulates essential functions such as landing gear, avionics, and other critical systems, which accounts for a significant portion of the cost and design across the various models. The modular nature of the Gambit family allows for economies of scale, interoperability, and streamlined development of variants​​.

The OBSS program, aimed at creating an unmanned aircraft that can fly ahead of fighter jets to relay targeting and threat data, aligns with the strategic capabilities that the Gambit drones offer. The XQ-67A, specifically designed for the OBSS program, shares the modular, low-cost, and adaptable design philosophy that is central to the Gambit family. This synergy suggests a significant overlap in the technological and design approaches of the XQ-67A and the Gambit drones, indicating a broader strategy by General Atomics to leverage common systems and design philosophies across different military drone programs​​​​.

Artist rendering of GA-ASI’s Gambit Series aircraft in action. Image: GA-ASI

The Genesis of OBSS: From LCAAT to Groundbreaking Technologies

The roots of OBSS trace back to the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technologies (LCAAT) initiative, launched in 2014. Doug Meador, a leading figure in AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate, elaborated on the evolution of these systems, emphasizing the integration of autonomy, sensor and weapons payloads, and communications within the air vehicle framework. The LCAAT initiative notably birthed the Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator (LCASD) project, under which the Air Force introduced the XQ-58 Valkyrie drones, marking the onset of autonomous collaborative platforms (ACP).

Transitioning from LCASD, the OBSS program emerged, drawing upon the experiences and aiming to redefine aircraft procurement through the Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Platform Sharing (LCAAPS) strategy. Trenton White, the OBSS Program Manager, highlighted the intent behind LCAAT to foster a multi-faceted vehicle development approach, integrating advanced technologies upon proving the vehicle’s readiness.

Innovating Aircraft Procurement: The Shift Towards Rapid, Cost-Effective Development

The LCAAPS initiative signified a pivotal shift towards a more dynamic and efficient method of developing aircraft, challenging the traditional, cumbersome processes. By adopting practices from the automotive and other industries, the Air Force aimed to enhance the speed to market while mitigating the rising costs and delays associated with military aircraft development. This approach promised to revolutionize the conceptualization and manufacturing of aircraft, leveraging open systems for hardware and software integration, thereby accelerating the path to operational capability.

The OBSS and OBWS emerged as distinct yet complementary concepts under LCAAPS, with the OBSS focusing on endurance and sensor capacity, and the OBWS on speed, maneuverability, and strike capabilities. This bifurcation underscored the Air Force’s strategy to harness standardized components and systems, akin to the automotive industry’s production line approach, to facilitate the rapid assembly and deployment of diverse aircraft models.

The OBSS and OBWS: A Vision of Modular, Collaborative Combat Aircraft

The revelation of the OBSS’s first flight and the existence of the OBWS underscores the Air Force’s commitment to exploring modular and collaborative combat aircraft solutions. While the OBSS serves as a ‘hunter’, gathering intelligence and providing surveillance capabilities, the potential of the OBWS as a ‘killer’, equipped to engage with adversaries, represents a significant advancement in unmanned aerial combat strategies. The concept of utilizing a common chassis or core for both drones is a testament to the visionary approach towards creating versatile, scalable, and cost-effective combat platforms.

General Atomics’ Gambit family of drones, unveiled in 2022, aligns with the OBSS’s underlying principles, suggesting a symbiotic relationship between the two initiatives. The modular concept advocated by the AFRL through the OBSS and OBWS initiatives mirrors the objectives of the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, which emphasizes affordable mass production and rapid deployment to meet future combat requirements, particularly in potential conflicts in the Pacific region.

The Road Ahead: Realizing the Potential of OBSS and OBWS

The United States Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is actively engaged in advancing modular drone technology through its Off-Board Sensing Station (OBSS) program and the Off-Board Weapon Station (OBWS) initiative. These efforts represent significant strides in enhancing the capabilities and applications of drones in various military operations.

The OBSS program focuses on the development of advanced sensing capabilities for drones, allowing them to gather valuable information from their surroundings. This includes the integration of sensors such as cameras, radars, lidars, and other remote sensing devices to provide comprehensive situational awareness to drone operators and military personnel. By equipping drones with these sensing capabilities, the AFRL aims to improve their ability to perform reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence gathering missions effectively.

Furthermore, the OBWS initiative, while more enigmatic, suggests the development of off-board weapon systems that can be deployed and controlled remotely from drones. This represents a significant advancement in unmanned aerial warfare, allowing drones to engage targets with precision and agility while minimizing the risks to human operators.

The AFRL’s dedication to advancing drone technology underscores its commitment to maintaining technological superiority in modern warfare. By investing in modular drone platforms and off-board systems, the Air Force aims to enhance its operational capabilities and stay ahead of potential adversaries.

Technical Characteristics Scheme Table:

Program/InitiativeOff-Board Sensing Station (OBSS)Off-Board Weapon Station (OBWS)
PurposeDevelopment of advanced sensing capabilities for dronesDevelopment of off-board weapon systems for drones
Technologies IntegratedCameras, radars, lidars, remote sensing devicesWeapon systems, remote control systems
ApplicationsReconnaissance, surveillance, intelligence gatheringPrecision targeting, aerial warfare
Key FeaturesComprehensive situational awareness, real-time data gatheringRemote weapon deployment, minimized risk to human operators
SignificanceEnhancing drone capabilities in military operationsAdvancing unmanned aerial warfare, maintaining technological superiority
This scheme table summarizes the key technical characteristics of the AFRL’s OBSS program and OBWS initiative, highlighting their purposes, integrated technologies, applications, key features, and significance in advancing drone technology for military applications.

The United States Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is making significant strides in the development and application of advanced, modular drone technology through its Off-Board Sensing Station (OBSS) program and the related, though more enigmatic, Off-Board Weapon Station (OBWS) initiative. These efforts are emblematic of a broader shift towards agility, adaptability, and innovation in military aviation, promising to reshape air combat in the years to come.

The OBSS program, initially shrouded in operational secrecy, has recently made headlines with the projected first flight of General Atomics’ Gambit drone, slated for the first half of Fiscal Year 2024. This milestone is part of the AFRL’s ambitious project to demonstrate unmanned aircraft with high levels of autonomy and sophisticated sensor suites capable of extending beyond the line of sight of current generation fighter jets, thereby enhancing situational awareness and targeting capabilities​​.

The OBSS program’s progression is intricately tied to the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Platform Sharing (LCAAPS) program, which seeks to create multiple aircraft variants based on a common core chassis. This strategy, often described as a “genus/species” approach by the AFRL, serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it enables the rapid development of a diverse family of systems with varying capabilities while utilizing a shared foundation. Secondly, it emphasizes a strategic shift towards modular, cost-effective solutions that can adapt to evolving operational needs.

Image: GA-ASI’s Certifiable Ground Control Station (CGCS) was designed for use with Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), specifically the MQ-9B SkyGuardian/SeaGuardian – the world’s first RPA designed and built to fly in non-segregated airspace. Its architecture provides separation between flight and mission critical functions. Flight critical functions are performed using off-the-shelf avionics and flight computers running GA-ASI’s certifiable Design Assurance Level software. The CGCS features a Pro Line Fusion® integrated avionics system from Collins Aerospace, the Abaco FORCE2C flight computer, as well as all the sensor and additional payload control for MQ-9B.Its Common Operational Picture (COP) and improved display technology offer significantly improved situational awareness and reduced pilot workload. Its intuitive interfaces enhance the decision-making process by helping the pilot identify potentially hazardous situations more quickly and easily. In 2019, the CGCS successfully completed its first end-to-end flight with MQ-9B.
The CGCS may be retrofitted into existing U.S. Air Force, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Royal Air Force, Italian Air Force, French Air Force, and NASA fixed-site facilities and fielded mobile GCS shelters.

The integration of OBSS with the LCAAPS program suggests a concerted effort by the AFRL to maximize efficiency and versatility in drone technology development. By establishing a common core chassis, the LCAAPS initiative streamlines the design and manufacturing processes for multiple aircraft variants. This commonality allows for shared components, subsystems, and manufacturing techniques across different platforms, reducing development time and costs.

Moreover, the “genus/species” approach implies a taxonomy-like methodology in designing drone platforms, where a core chassis serves as the genus, or common ancestor, from which various species, or specialized variants, are derived. This modular framework enables rapid prototyping and iteration, as well as the incorporation of new technologies and capabilities as they become available.

Furthermore, the emphasis on cost-effectiveness is a crucial aspect of the AFRL’s strategy. By leveraging modular designs and shared components, the LCAAPS program aims to lower the overall lifecycle costs of drone systems. This not only makes drone technology more accessible but also allows for greater scalability and flexibility in adapting to different mission requirements.

Overall, the integration of OBSS with the LCAAPS program represents a holistic approach to advancing drone technology, encompassing both sensor development and platform design. By embracing modularity, cost-effectiveness, and adaptability, the AFRL aims to stay at the forefront of unmanned aerial systems development and meet the evolving needs of modern warfare.

Technical Characteristics Scheme Table:

Program/InitiativeLow-Cost Attritable Aircraft Platform Sharing (LCAAPS)
PurposeCreate multiple aircraft variants from a common core chassis
Technologies IntegratedShared components, subsystems, modular designs
ApplicationsDiverse family of drone systems with varying capabilities
Key FeaturesRapid development, cost-effectiveness, adaptability
SignificanceEfficiency in design and manufacturing, versatility in drone technology
This scheme table summarizes the key technical characteristics of the integration between the OBSS program and the LCAAPS initiative, highlighting their purposes, integrated technologies, applications, key features, and significance in advancing drone technology for military applications.

While details surrounding the OBWS remain sparse, the conceptual underpinnings suggest a complementary platform to the OBSS, designed for higher performance and weapons deployment capabilities. The existence of the OBWS, coupled with the advancements in the OBSS program, illustrates a concerted effort by the AFRL and its industry partners to explore the full potential of modular drone technology in enhancing the U.S. Air Force’s combat capabilities.

The collaboration with General Atomics and the successful progression of the OBSS program, culminating in the impending flight test of the Gambit drone, are indicative of a broader trend in military aviation. This trend emphasizes rapid, cost-effective development cycles and the deployment of autonomous systems to extend the operational capabilities of manned aircraft, thus ensuring a competitive edge in future conflicts.

As the OBSS program edges closer to realizing its full potential, with the first flight of the Gambit drone on the horizon, the implications for the future of air combat and modular military technology are profound. The continued development of the OBSS and the speculative OBWS programs not only highlight the Air Force’s innovative approach to combat readiness but also signal a new era of air warfare defined by unmanned systems’ strategic integration​​.

The advancements within the OBSS program and the speculative development of the OBWS represent a transformative phase in military aviation, emphasizing the importance of modular design, autonomy, and cost-efficiency. As these programs evolve, they are set to redefine the paradigms of air combat, underscoring the pivotal role of advanced drone technology in shaping future military capabilities.

The AFRL’s disclosure of the OBSS program and the introduction of the OBWS concept mark a pivotal moment in the evolution of military aviation technology. By embracing modular design principles and leveraging rapid, cost-effective development strategies, the U.S. Air Force is poised to redefine the future of air combat, ensuring readiness and superiority in the face of emerging global threats.

Copyright of
Even partial reproduction of the contents is not permitted without prior authorization – Reproduction reserved


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Questo sito usa Akismet per ridurre lo spam. Scopri come i tuoi dati vengono elaborati.