The Air Force plans to spend more than $6 billion on a “collaborative combat aircraft” program and related projects over the next five years, according to newly released budget justification documents.
The CCA drones are expected to serve as robotic wingmen for Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter jets and other manned aircraft. The Air Force is currently planning for 1,000 such systems.
In fiscal 2024-2028, the service intends to invest about $5.8 billion in research, development, testing and evaluation for the main collaborative combat aircraft program, plus another $400 million or so for an experimental operations unit and an autonomy testbed that will support the initiative.
Over the next five years, the CCA program “matures and leverages relevant Science and Technology investments to reduce risk by conducting targeted development, integration and test activities,” per the budget justification books. “Activities will include the employment of digital acquisitions through the application of digital engineering, agile software development, and open systems architectures. Funding provides information technology/test/training infrastructure investments, operational concept exploration, technology studies, multi-domain integration, operational assessments, architecture development, and multi-level prototyping as well as program management support.”
The program “will conduct analyses, identify technology candidates, perform concept refinement studies, development, integration, prototyping, and demonstrations to reduce risk and mature CCA concepts and air superiority related technologies in support of the NGAD family of systems,” according to the planning blueprint.
Concept exploration, integration studies, technology risk reduction and prototyping are slated to begin in the first quarter of fiscal 2024 and run through the end of fiscal 2028 — the last year covered in the newly released budget justification documents.
The Air Force is requesting $392 million for the main CCA budget activity line in fiscal 2024. Annual funding would ramp up to more than $3 billion in fiscal 2028.
Meanwhile, a new Experimental Operations Unit program will focus on doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and policy concepts related to the CCA drones.
“The program activities will reduce risk to operations of CCA employment with crewed aircraft. Funding provides program management and test support, operational concepts and studies, and infrastructure investment for information technology, test, and training. The program will serve as early risk reduction for employment of CCA’s with crewed aircraft,” according to budget justification documents.
Cross-functional teams will be charged with conducting analyses, demonstrations and experiments to develop and iterate concepts of operations “to provide solutions to current and future air superiority capability gaps,” per the documents.
The Air Force is requesting $69 million for the unit in fiscal 2024, and a total of approximately $283 million for it in fiscal 2024-2028.
Another related program called the Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model (VENOM) project, will provide a “flying autonomy testbed” for the CCA effort.
“The program activities will reduce risk to CCA through test and demonstration of the autonomy reference architecture and autonomy skills on a man-on-the-loop aircraft. Funding provides program management and test support to mature autonomy architecture and software prior to transition to CCA. The program will enable testing of autonomy on a crewed aircraft to serve as early risk reduction for CCA autonomy,” according to the budget justification documents.
The Air Force is requesting $50 million for VENOM in fiscal 2024, and a total of approximately $121 million for it in fiscal 2024-2028.
The Air Force hopes to have CCA drones ready to be fielded when the manned NGAD fighter jet achieves operational capability, which officials say could occur in the 2030 time frame.