Air Force considering wide range of options to team robotic wingmen with other platforms

An XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle launches at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., Dec. 9, 2020. The flight successfully demonstrated the ability of new communications data to exchange information with an F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua King)

The Air Force plans to field robotic wingmen in the coming years and team them with manned fighter jets. However, it is still pondering a variety of other types of crewed platforms that could be linked with the new uncrewed systems, according to the service’s top officer.

Introducing unmanned “collaborative combat aircraft” (CCA) as part of a new family of systems for the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is a top operational imperative for Air Force leadership.

“We are definitely heading down the path of [teaming] crewed and uncrewed aircraft. In fact, I was just in a meeting this morning to talk about the aspect of autonomy and how that plays into our collaborative combat aircraft and where we’re headed,” Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. said Monday at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute think tank. “A lot of our focus is … to be able to bring on these combat collaborative aircraft that can actually, you know, be a sensor, be a shooter, be a weapons carrier and reduce the cost of operations.”

While the Air Force is planning to deploy these systems with the manned NGAD platform — a next-generation stealth fighter that is expected to come online around 2030 — it is also examining other options for pairing robotic jets with other crewed systems to include tankers and airborne early-warning and control platforms.

“What we’re looking at is not necessarily to do it solely within NGAD. How do you do it with the F-35 [joint strike fighter], for example? How do you use it with other platforms? Could you operate it from a ground station? Could you operate it from a seat on an E-7 Wedgetail or a KC-46?” Brown said. “We want to not constrain ourselves just to say it’s only going to be tied to the Next-Generation Air Dominance platform, but you know, how do we look at it from a broader perspective as well.”

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said the manned NGAD fighter could achieve initial operational capability by the end of this decade. The service’s top weapons buyer, Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Andrew Hunter, has said the goal is to have the collaborative combat aircraft ready for fielding by the time that platform comes online.

However, when asked about the timeline by FedScoop on Monday, Brown declined to say whether he expects that goal to be achieved. “That’s a good question,” he replied before talking about other types of systems that CCA could team with.