The Air Force’s Next-Gen Fighter Is Getting Its Own Drone Army

The US Air Force is building manned variants of the upcoming sixth-generation fighter jet as part of its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall says the family of systems is likely to pilot up to five drones simultaneously, a development that will introduce new tactics, expand a stealth fighter jet’s mission range, and allow distributed but networked weapons and surveillance nodes to expand attack and reconnaissance options to increase.

Many of the details and exact configurations of this small family of manned and unmanned platforms are either unavailable for safety reasons or are still under development. The unmanned systems being built to support sixth-generation manned aircraft will likely appear much earlier than a ready-to-use manned variant. Of course, the requirements for the unmanned systems, called Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), are still in flux. Air Force assistant secretary for procurement, technology and logistics Andrew Hunter told reporters the drones will be built according to key operational needs.

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“We need an aircraft that can conduct operations in restricted airspace and ensure that we have the ability to establish maneuverability. We have had successful unmanned platforms for decades. It’s challenging to have a platform that can operate in restricted airspace,” Hunter said.

The drones will come in different sizes and will act as surveillance “nodes” and attack drones for offensive missions.

“We need a platform that’s affordable so we can get some mass, not something too expensive that we can’t afford to lose. We do design trades. It must be capable of supporting the NGAD system’s mission and will require a weapons carrying capacity to operate with a manned aircraft,” added Hunter.

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While the manned NGAD is expected to be operational by the end of the decade, the CCAs could arrive “soon,” Hunter said. “The industry is expanding [Research and Design] and [is] ready for a takeover program.”

The prospect of multiple networked CCAs working in close coordination with a manned carrier aircraft opens up new tactical possibilities, mainly because the CCAs are networked together and at the same time linked to a manned aircraft providing command and control. Piloting drones from the air will reduce latency by eliminating the need to send data through a ground station, streamlining the transmission of time-sensitive data and massively reducing the time from sensor to gunner. An armed drone could autonomously identify a target, use onboard computer processing systems, and allow a human decision-maker to find and destroy enemy targets from a safe distance. Advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence data processing will be able to analyze a variety of mission variables from otherwise diverse streams of incoming sensor information.

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Kris Osborn is the defense editor of the national interests. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a senior professional in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Procurement, Logistics and Technology. Osborn has also worked as a presenter and on-air military specialist on national television networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

picture: Flickr/US Department of Defense.

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