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Artist's conception | U.S. Air Force

USAF Sees '100 Roles' for Its Robot Wingmen—and Firms Are Lining Up to Make Them

Air Force procurement chief offers the most detailed description yet of the collaborative combat aircraft program.

The U.S. Air Force envisions a hundred different roles for its new drones that will accompany fighter pilots into combat—with dozens of companies already lining up to build the wingmen drones. 

There is a “heavy focus” on non-traditional companies in the competition for the Air Force’s “collaborative combat aircraft” program, said Andrew Hunter, the service’s acquisition chief. Some defense primes will be competing as well, he added, to build drones that the service plans to fly alongside its manned fighters.

“We are going to have a handful of competitors for the very initial work on collaborative combat aircraft and as we continue to iterate in the program, the number of competitors will grow quite a bit,” he said. 

The Air Force expects to have upwards of 20 to 30 competitors to build the drone itself “in the not too distant future.”

And for CCA’s autonomy and mission systems, the service already has 20 to 30 competitors providing capabilities—a number that is “only going to grow,” Hunter said Thursday during an event hosted by George Mason University.

The Air Force has said it is planning to buy 1,000 CCAs: 300 F-35s will get two drones apiece, as will 200 of the planned Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, aircraft. The service wants $500 million for CCAs in its 2024 spending request—one of a dozen new starts is asking Congress to greenlight. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said he wants CCA production to start before the end of the decade and reach operational capability in a “comparable” timeline with the NGAD program.

Within the 2024 budget is an “experimental operations unit” to develop the concept of operations for CCAs, Hunter said, and the unit will have some “surrogate systems” to prototype with.

The service is approaching the program as a “continuous competition” so many companies can participate, Hunter said.

“What often trips us up and gets us to these single points of failure is its life or death. You win and that's a 50-year franchise that both sides are essentially locked into and it becomes a death struggle for industry on every contract that if you don't win, you're gone. You no longer exist in some cases. So that's very high stakes,” he said. 

There will be “many variants of CCAs” if the Air Force gets this right, Hunter said, and he envisions a hundred different roles for the drones, including many missions that manned aircraft currently do.

“We want to build systems that can successfully do something that we can use in the near term and field that and then iterate towards a broader set of solutions over time,” Hunter said.

Hunter also discussed a legislative proposal recently introduced by Secretary Kendall that would allow service secretaries to start new programs and give the Air Force more budget flexibility.

“I'm hopeful that some variant of the proposal will make it into one or both committee marks and we'll be able to leverage that,” he said. 

While skeptics of the proposal have said it's unlikely Congress will greenlight this initiative because they don’t want the Pentagon to start developing a new program before they have an opportunity to vote on it, Hunter said the proposal is “not unlimited” and “pretty closely tailored.”

If Congress approves the proposal and the Air Force could demonstrate how it’d use this authority responsibly, Hunter said they hope “that more authority would be merited over time.”