Air Force Secretary Sets Timeline For Manned, Unmanned Teaming

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall [File Photo Courtesy: U.S. Air Force]

The U.S. Air Force's concept of manned, unmanned teaming could emerge in "roughly the same time frame" as the service's forthcoming Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter currently in production, the service's top official said Tuesday.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall confirmed Tuesday that when it comes to exploring the use of pairing unmanned air combat platforms with piloted aircraft, the service is all in. 

"What that opens up to you is some really interesting tactical options that you don’t have when you only have manned aircraft.”

Frank Kendall, Air Force Secretary

"The technologies are coming together to allow us to do manned, unmanned teaming of a fighter, let's say, with one or more uncrewed aircraft that accompanies it," Kendall said during an online event at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. "I think the mix of capabilities that you put in that formation is still very much uncertain. It's up in the air, but there are a lot of possibilities. What that opens up to you is some really interesting tactical options that you don't have when you only have manned aircraft.”

Bombers present "a lot of potential," Kendall said, adding that he wasn't as certain the roles uncrewed platforms would play alongside them, such as whether or not they follow the aircraft, or lead with more sophisticated functionality. There's also the question about stealth, he added.

"We're going to explore that and try to figure out what the right mix is there," he said.

In December, Kendall confirmed that two unmanned air combat vehicle programs capable of working in conjunction with bombers such as the B-21 Raider currently under development would be included in the 2023 defense budget. “These will be acknowledged classified programs,” Kendall said at the time, adding, “but I am going to try to get them started in ’23.”

An artist's rendering of the B-21 Raider currently under development. [Courtesy: U.S. Air Force]

Kendall said Tuesday he's focused on getting the initial capability out to operators as soon as possible.

"I think we can get to what I call a minimum viable product and maybe it's one person—one pilot—with a wingman in an NGAD or an F-35, or maybe it's more than that. And it's one set of functionalities originally, then over time that develops and matures," he said.

"We'll work to get a platform—an uncrewed platform—that can work with NGAD, while we're working on NGAD, I would say roughly the same time frame we should have some things out there," he said. 

The Air Force’s secret NGAD family of capabilities is expected to be operational by 2030

Last month, Kendall said he was looking at programs that paired uncrewed combat aircraft to manned aircraft as a cost-effective way to build mass.

“One of the reasons I’ve gone down this road is, if we only do very expensive aircraft for the Air Force, we’re not going to be able to afford an Air Force anywhere near the size that we either need or have today,” he said. 

Future combat will look significantly different compared to that of recent decades, the Air Force chief said during the event Tuesday.

"The fights that we're worried about are different from the ones we've been in," Kendall said. "We've been in one where we controlled time, to a large extent. Where things happen relatively slowly and in small numbers," he said.

"The fights we're worried about now, whether it's an incursion…against NATO, or an attempt to, say, seize Taiwan by force, are a totally different kind of operation," Kendall said. "You have to be prepared to deal with a lot of objects that you're trying to understand and sort out, and a lot of things happening in a very compressed timeline."

Kimberly is managing editor of FLYING Digital.

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