Maj. Kristin “BEO” Wolfe demonstrates the capabilities of the F-35A Lighting during a practice flight with the F-35 Demonstration Team at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Dec. 13, 2023.

Maj. Kristin “BEO” Wolfe demonstrates the capabilities of the F-35A Lighting during a practice flight with the F-35 Demonstration Team at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Dec. 13, 2023. U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Jack Rodgers

Air Force will narrow its pool of robot wingman vendors within ‘next few months’

The service might be able to pick three companies for the next stage of the competition—if industry shares some of the cost burden.

AURORA, Colorado—The U.S. Air Force will soon shrink its pool of vendors vying to build new drones that will accompany fighter pilots into combat.

Within the next few months, the service will pick two or three companies from the five currently on contract to design what they call collaborative combat aircraft: Anduril, Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.

“Three is going to be difficult because of the level of funding we have in the budget. With some cost sharing from industry, I think we could do three, and that would be our preference, so we're going to be working out some way to do that, hopefully,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters Tuesday at the Air & Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium here.

Exactly how many vendors the Air Force will be able to carry into production is still uncertain, Kendall said. “There's a possibility that we could do more than one.”  

These vendors are competing in “increment one” of the effort, which is focused on building simpler drones and fielding them quickly. Drones in “increment two” will have more advanced tech—and allow companies who didn’t make it in the first competition to try again.  

The service plans to award contracts for increment two in fiscal 2025 to work out concepts for these drones and conduct preliminary design work, Kendall said. 

Service officials wouldn’t say how CCA capabilities will differ from increment one to two, but Andrew Hunter, the Air Force’s acquisition chief, said the second round of competition might feature a “very different set of requirements.”

Developing autonomy for the program will be the hardest part of CCA development, Hunter said, and there’s a “huge team of vendors” working on the software to load onto the drones, beyond the five main companies that have been contracted for increment one. 

“I will say we have a high degree of confidence that we can deliver useful autonomy in increment one. We would not be proceeding at the pace that we are on increment one if we didn't believe that we would be able to deliver useful autonomy in the same timeframe as we are able to field that air vehicle, but it will be more limited than I think what you'll see down the road,” Hunter said. 

There’s also a chance the Air Force will bring in international partners for increment two, Kendall said, and add our “closest partners” into CCA development. 

The Air Force, which formally announced the CCA program last year at the AFA conference in Colorado, wants to buy at least a thousand CCAs. The service is still figuring out how to balance cost and capability, since leaders want CCAs to provide “affordable mass.” The service is looking at a range of costs for the family of drones, and Kendall has previously said he wants a CCA to cost no more than a third of an F-35—about $27 million. 

Officials dodged questions on preliminary cost estimates, but Hunter said they have been “been rigorous, certainly with increment one, and I anticipate we will with increment two, about saying, it has to be within certain cost parameters to be the affordable mass that we're looking for.”

Still, the entire program depends on the fiscal 2024 budget passing, Kendall said, because otherwise the program won’t have the funding it needs to move forward.