Air Force’s Bold Bet: Unveiling the Future of Drone Warfare with Collaborative Combat Aircraft

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The U.S. Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program represents a significant shift in how the service approaches the acquisition and deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The emphasis is on developing drones that are not built to last for decades but can be acquired quickly and adapted rapidly through iterative cycles. This approach aims to ensure that the Air Force remains capable of meeting future combat requirements, particularly in an era of tightening budgets and evolving technological landscapes.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin has been vocal about the need for a fundamental rethinking of the Air Force’s procurement and operational strategies. Speaking at a recent event hosted by the Air & Space Forces Association, Gen. Allvin underscored the importance of the CCA program as part of the larger Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative. NGAD also includes the development of a new sixth-generation stealth combat jet and several other subprograms aimed at maintaining the Air Force’s superiority in air combat.

The current plan is for the Air Force to acquire hundreds, potentially thousands, of CCA drones through a series of development cycles. In the initial Increment 1 phase, the Air Force expects to procure around 100 drones, with designs from Anduril and General Atomics currently in competition. These drones are expected to feature high degrees of autonomy and to work closely with crewed aircraft, including future NGAD combat jets, particularly in air-to-air combat missions.

Gen. Allvin has emphasized that the traditional approach of building aircraft to last for 25 to 30 years is no longer viable. “Built to last” is a concept rooted in the 20th century, and the assumption that an aircraft remains relevant as long as it lasts does not hold in today’s rapidly evolving technological environment. The focus, instead, is on building modular and adaptable systems that can be upgraded or replaced as technology advances. This approach is evident in the design philosophy for the CCA drones, which are not expected to have extensive sustainment structures but will be adaptable to new technologies.

The U.S. Navy, which has its own intertwined CCA program, has also considered using these drones as missiles or training targets after a limited number of missions. This concept of limited lifespan and rapid turnover is a stark departure from the traditional model of long-term aircraft sustainment. The Air Force is targeting a service life for the CCA drones that is likely to exceed a few dozen missions but will not adhere to the traditional decades-long lifespan.

Despite the broad goals and intentions laid out for the CCA program, specific details about the requirements and capabilities of the drones remain somewhat nebulous. The requirements are expected to evolve from one increment to the next. For instance, while Increment 1 is focused on initial acquisition and integration with existing systems, work on Increment 2 is anticipated to start in the 2025 Fiscal Year, with requirements still being defined.

Cost is another critical aspect of the CCA program. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has previously indicated that the unit cost of the initial CCAs will be between one-quarter and one-third of the price of an F-35 stealth fighter, placing it between approximately $20.5 and $27.5 million per drone. This cost consideration is part of a broader strategy to achieve “affordable mass,” enabling the Air Force to field large numbers of these drones quickly and cost-effectively.

The concept of “affordable mass” is central to the Air Force’s strategy for future conflicts, particularly against near-peer competitors like China. The service aims to accelerate development and acquisition cycles, a process referred to as “speed-to-ramp,” to ensure that these capabilities can be fielded in a timely manner. This approach reflects a shift towards more agile and responsive procurement processes, aligning with the need to adapt quickly to changing threat environments and budget constraints.

Gen. Allvin has acknowledged the challenging budgetary environment the Air Force faces, with pressures from inflation, potential pay raises, and the financial demands of other major programs like the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile. The Fiscal Year 2026 budget is expected to be particularly thin, necessitating tough choices and a reevaluation of how the Air Force allocates its resources. This budgetary context underscores the importance of programs like CCA, which aim to deliver critical capabilities without breaking the bank.

At a recent Air & Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium, significant new details emerged about the CCA program. These included the program’s autonomy goals, aggressive production plans, and potential operational impacts. The Air Force plans to acquire at least 1,000 CCAs in the initial tranche known as Increment One, with companies like Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Anduril working on air vehicle designs. A down-select process is expected later this year, with production potentially starting by 2028.

Increment One CCAs are expected to operate closely with stealthy crewed combat jets, including the new sixth-generation design under the NGAD initiative and certain F-35As. Future iterations may see these drones operating more independently or in partnership with other crewed aircraft. The program also anticipates formal work on Increment Two starting in the 2025 Fiscal Year, with possible foreign participation and continued collaboration with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. The inclusion of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is also planned for later this year, highlighting the inter-service partnership that is a hallmark of the CCA program.

The Air Force has provided limited details about the exact requirements and cost projections for the Increment One CCAs. However, it appears that the service is leaning towards designs that offer higher performance and less range than initially expected. The goal is to strike a balance between capability and cost, ensuring that the drones are effective but not prohibitively expensive.

David Alexander, president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, emphasized the importance of stripping out elements associated with manned operation from the drone designs. This approach helps to control costs while meeting the desired capability requirements. Similarly, Robert Winkler, vice president of Corporate Development and National Security Programs at Kratos, highlighted the need to avoid the high costs associated with “exquisite sensors” and instead focus on achieving a reasonable balance of performance and cost.

Winkler cited the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-based tanker drone as an example of what to avoid. The MQ-25’s unit cost is only marginally less than that of a KC-46 crewed aerial refueling tanker, underscoring the potential pitfalls of not adequately controlling costs in unmanned aircraft development.

Image :  MQ-25 T1 Stingray test aircraft

The CCA program’s focus on affordability, rapid acquisition, and adaptability reflects a broader trend in the Air Force’s strategic thinking. The goal is to ensure that the service can maintain its combat edge in a cost-effective manner, particularly as it faces the twin challenges of evolving threats and tightening budgets. The emphasis on human-machine teaming, as exemplified by the CCA program, is seen as a key element of this strategy, enabling the Air Force to leverage advanced technologies while managing costs effectively.

Overall, the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program represents a bold and innovative approach to unmanned aerial vehicle development and deployment. By focusing on modularity, adaptability, and rapid acquisition cycles, the Air Force aims to ensure that it remains capable of meeting future combat requirements in a cost-effective manner. This approach marks a significant departure from traditional procurement models and reflects the evolving nature of modern warfare and technological development. As the program progresses, it will be essential to continue refining the requirements, managing costs, and ensuring that the drones can be integrated effectively with existing and future combat systems.

Major New Details about the U.S. Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft Program Emerge at Recent Warfare Symposium

The Air & Space Forces Association’s recent annual Warfare Symposium has shed light on significant new details regarding the U.S. Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program. This includes an in-depth understanding of the program’s autonomy objectives, ambitious production strategies, and potential operational impacts. Although uncertainties persist about the capabilities and expenses associated with these uncrewed aircraft, the CCA initiative is poised to introduce disruptive changes that may fundamentally alter the Air Force’s operational landscape.

The current plan entails the Air Force acquiring a minimum of 1,000 CCA drones under an initial phase termed Increment One. Five major contractors—Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Anduril—are developing air vehicle designs for this increment. Additionally, numerous firms are contributing to the program through the development of autonomous technologies, sensors, mission systems, and command and control capabilities. A selection process will narrow down the contractors from five to two or three later this year, with production slated to begin by 2028.

Increment One CCAs will initially operate closely with stealthy crewed combat jets, including the forthcoming sixth-generation aircraft under the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative, and certain F-35As. Future iterations may see these CCAs partnered with other crewed aircraft and operating more independently.

The Air Force plans to initiate work on a second batch of CCA drones, known as Increment Two, in the 2025 Fiscal Year. This phase might include foreign participation and is being developed in collaboration with the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and potentially U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). This inter-service partnership aims to enhance the ability to exchange control of the drones seamlessly during operations.

Capabilities and Costs

While the Air Force has shared limited specifics about the requirements and cost projections for Increment One CCAs, it is clear that the chosen design will prioritize higher performance over range. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has indicated that each CCA in this initial batch will cost between one-quarter and one-third of an F-35’s unit price, translating to approximately $20.5 to $27.5 million.

At the AFA War Symposium, David Alexander, President of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, emphasized the need to strip out features associated with manned operations to keep costs low. Robert Winkler of Kratos echoed this sentiment, stressing the importance of cost control and suggesting trade-offs in sensor performance to achieve affordability. Winkler cited the MQ-25 Stingray tanker drone as a cautionary example, highlighting its high unit cost relative to manned aircraft like the KC-46.

Autonomy is a critical aspect of the CCA program. Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Andrew Hunter, noted the challenges of developing complex autonomous systems. He expressed confidence in delivering useful autonomy for Increment One, with expectations for more advanced capabilities in subsequent increments. The Air Force is also leveraging open architectures and mission systems to enable rapid development and adaptability.

General Atomics and other contractors are advancing autonomy and related technologies using surrogates like the stealth Avenger drones. Alexander indicated that autonomous capabilities enabling CCAs to coordinate and decide on target engagements could be realized soon, albeit with human oversight for the foreseeable future.

Operational Implications

The CCA program’s scale, aiming for at least 1,000 drones, will significantly impact the Air Force’s operational approach. Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe highlighted the program’s potential to disrupt traditional methods, from human-machine teaming to the skills required by airmen, such as data analytics and software programming. CCAs will drive new thinking about data sharing and management, enhancing operational data collection and analysis.

The introduction of CCAs could transform the Air Force’s combat tactics and logistical operations. These uncrewed aircraft will require different support infrastructure than crewed jets, potentially operating from forward and austere locations under concepts like Agile Combat Employment (ACE). This will necessitate rethinking fueling, weapons loading, and maintenance to minimize logistical footprints.

“Speed-to-Ramp” and Iterative Development

A critical driver behind the CCA program is “affordable mass,” aimed at meeting large-scale combat capacity demands. “Speed-to-ramp” is an emerging corollary, focusing on accelerating drone development and large-scale production. Assistant Secretary Hunter emphasized the importance of understanding and delivering capabilities quickly, while Brig. Gen. Jason Voorheis noted the rapid progress from concept to contract awards.

The Air Force’s ownership of open architectures for mission systems and autonomy is expected to expand the industrial base and prevent vendor lock-in. Iterative development cycles will be crucial in achieving the speed-to-ramp objectives. Northrop Grumman’s use of digital engineering, as seen in the B-21 Raider program, illustrates the potential for accelerated progress.

Transformational Potential

The CCA program’s scope extends beyond drone acquisition, potentially reshaping the entire Air Force. Maj. Gen. Jobe emphasized the program’s disruptive nature, affecting everything from mission planning to tactical decision-making. The cultural shift toward accepting autonomous aircraft is already underway, with a focus on leveraging autonomy to enhance combat capabilities while preserving pilot safety.

The CCA initiative promises to revolutionize the Air Force’s operational capabilities and strategic approach, ushering in a new era of uncrewed combat aircraft and associated technologies.

Latest Updates on the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) Program

New Developments and Industry Collaboration

Since the Air & Space Forces Association’s recent Warfare Symposium, further details have emerged about the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, emphasizing the evolving partnerships and technical advancements. Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Anduril are intensifying their efforts in developing Increment One air vehicles. These companies are focusing on integrating advanced autonomous technologies and ensuring that the drones meet the stringent performance requirements set by the Air Force.

Additionally, the Air Force’s collaboration with the Navy and Marine Corps has deepened, with plans to include U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in the near future. This inter-service partnership aims to create a versatile and interoperable drone fleet capable of seamless operational integration across different military branches.

Enhanced Autonomy and AI Capabilities

The Air Force is making significant strides in enhancing the autonomy and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities of the CCA drones. Recent advancements in AI have allowed for more sophisticated decision-making algorithms, enabling the drones to perform complex tasks with minimal human intervention. These developments are crucial for the success of the Increment One CCAs, which are expected to operate alongside crewed aircraft and perform high-risk missions independently.

The Air Force’s emphasis on open architectures has facilitated rapid integration of new technologies, allowing for continuous upgrades and enhancements to the CCA fleet. This approach ensures that the drones remain at the cutting edge of technology, capable of adapting to evolving operational requirements.

Production and Cost Efficiency

To achieve the ambitious production targets, the Air Force and its industry partners are leveraging advanced manufacturing techniques and digital engineering tools. These innovations are expected to significantly reduce production times and costs, enabling the Air Force to meet its goal of fielding at least 1,000 drones by 2028.

Northrop Grumman, for example, is utilizing high-fidelity modeling and simulation to identify potential issues before actual production, ensuring a smoother and more efficient manufacturing process. This approach, combined with a focus on modular design and scalable production, is critical for achieving the speed-to-ramp objectives.

Operational and Logistical Considerations

The operational deployment of CCAs will necessitate significant changes in logistics and support infrastructure. The Air Force is developing new concepts of operations (CONOPS) to accommodate the unique requirements of the CCA fleet. These include shorter and less improved runways, mobile maintenance units, and cloud-based ground segments for operational control.

The Agile Combat Employment (ACE) framework, which emphasizes flexibility and rapid redeployment, will be integral to the successful integration of CCAs into the Air Force’s operational strategy. This approach will enable the drones to operate from a variety of forward locations, providing a significant tactical advantage in contested environments.


Detailed Final Scheme Table with All Technical Information

The following table compiles the most up-to-date technical information about the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, incorporating data from the latest developments and industry updates.

ParameterDetails
Program NameCollaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA)
IncrementIncrement One
Target Number of DronesAt least 1,000
Key ContractorsBoeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Anduril
Supporting FirmsDozens, including sensor, AI, mission systems, and C2 technology developers
Expected Production Start2028
Estimated Unit Cost$20.5 – $27.5 million (1/4 to 1/3 of F-35 unit cost)
Range and PerformanceHigher performance, less range than originally expected
Autonomy LevelIncrement One: Limited autonomy with human oversight
Future Autonomy EnhancementsExpected to increase in complexity and capability over time
AI CapabilitiesAdvanced decision-making algorithms, continuous learning
Operational IntegrationInitially with NGAD and F-35A, future integration with other crewed aircraft and independent ops
Inter-service CollaborationU.S. Navy, Marine Corps, SOCOM
Open ArchitectureYes, for mission systems and autonomy, facilitating rapid upgrades
Digital EngineeringHigh-fidelity modeling and simulation for efficient production
Maintenance and LogisticsMinimal scheduled maintenance, mobile units for forward deployment
Command and ControlCloud-based ground segments under consideration, reducing operational footprint
Agile Combat Employment (ACE)Key operational framework for flexible and rapid redeployment
Key Focus AreasCost-efficiency, rapid production, enhanced autonomy, inter-service operability, flexible deployment
Current StatusOngoing development, contractor down-select expected later this year
Next IncrementIncrement Two to start in FY 2025, potential for foreign participation
Potential Use CasesHigh-risk missions, close support for crewed aircraft, independent operations

This detailed scheme table provides a comprehensive overview of the current status, technical specifications, and future directions of the CCA program. It incorporates the latest available data and reflects the ongoing efforts to develop a highly capable and versatile fleet of uncrewed combat aircraft.


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