Air Force Wants Combat Drones Controlled by Piloted Aircraft

The U.S. Air Force wants to soon add to its arsenal remotely piloted air combat vehicles that may be networked and controlled by piloted aircraft.

GE’s XA100 and Pratt & Whitney’s XA10 are under consideration as a potential powerplant upgrade for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. [Courtesy: U.S. Air Force]

The U.S. Air Force wants to soon add to its arsenal remotely piloted air combat vehicles that may be networked and controlled by piloted aircraft, according to the service’s top official.

The news comes days after USAF Secretary Frank Kendall also confirmed that the Air Force will ask for funding for two classified remotely piloted air combat vehicles in the next defense budget, according to reports.

“I’ve got two that I’m going to have in the ’23 budget in some form,” Kendall told Politico last week. “They’re both unmanned air combat vehicles, unmanned platforms that are designed to work in conjunction with fighter aircraft like [the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter] or F-22 or the F-35. On the other hand they work in conjunction with bombers like the B-21.”

“These will be acknowledged classified programs,” Kendall said, adding, “but I am going to try to get them started in ’23.”

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

“Designed to complement the F-35, F-22, joint, and partner forces in the air superiority role, Next Generation Air Dominance is an advanced aircraft program for development of penetrating counter air platforms with multi-domain situational awareness, agile resilient communications, and an integrated family of capabilities,” USAF said in its last Biennial Report. 

“One of the most important benefits is that having something autonomous or remotely crewed removes the warfighter from often the most dangerous and contested environments.”

Ruth Butchart, associate fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies

The new B-21 Raider, described as forming “the backbone” of USAF’s bomber fleet, is designed to “provide operational flexibility” while also being “relevant across the spectrum of conflict,” the USAF said. The service is expected to procure at least 100 copies of the aircraft, with deliveries anticipated in the mid-2020s.

During a Defense One forum held Thursday, Kendall gave more detail.

“Basically, the idea here is that you have one or more, nominally up to five, lets say, unmanned combat aircraft that are controlled by a single, modern, manned aircraft,” he said, Defense Daily reported. 

“NGAD is the one we’re looking at principally, but you could also do that with F-22 potentially, or F-35. The idea is that the manned aircraft is essentially calling plays, and he’s using those other unmanned combat aircraft as a formation to do things that make sense tactically. This opens up a whole bunch of opportunities, but the exact mix of that and what you’d carry on those unmanned combat aircraft and what kinds of plays you’d pre-program for the operators to select are all things we have to go sort out.”

The same strategy would be deployed with the B-21, he said.

“The B-21 is a very expensive aircraft. It has a certain payload and range,” Kendall said, according to Defense Daily. “We’d like to amplify that capability. It has to be able to penetrate, which is valuable, but individual B-21s are gonna be very expensive so what we want is something that can operate with it,” he said, adding, “We’re gonna sort that out and think about unmanned combat aircraft, how to network them together under the control of an operator of a B-21 to operate as a formation in a loose sense against a modern enemy.”

The USAF is already on the path to exploring the teaming of piloted and remotely crewed aircraft. This past summer, the service announced that its experimental autonomy core system (ACS), Skyborg, was on track to advance to a program of record by Fiscal Year 2023. 

In late October, Skyborg was successfully deployed aboard two General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger tactical drones for a multi-hour test flight.

“The flight demonstrated matured capabilities of the ACS that enabled two MQ-20s to fly autonomously while communicating with each other to ensure coordinated flight,” Air Force Life Cycle Management Center said following the flight test. “Additionally, the aircraft responded to navigational commands, stayed within specified geo-fences, and maintained flight envelopes.”

The F-22 is another example of a combat aircraft that could work with the types of unmanned drones that are being proposed. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force

Competition With China

The emergence of new details about the USAF’s plans for combat drones comes as top military officials increasingly point to the escalating military capability race with China.

China, which has spent the past two decades conducting “breakneck modernization” of its military, is the U.S. military’s “pacing challenge,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at the Reagan National Defense Forum recently.

“China’s military is on pace to become a peer competitor to the United States in Asia—and, eventually, around the world,” Austin said. “China’s leaders are expanding their ability to project force and to establish a global network of military bases. Meanwhile, the [People’s Liberation Army] PLA is rapidly improving many of its capabilities, including strike, air, missile-defense and anti-submarine measures. And it's increasingly focused on integrating its information, cyber and space operations.” 

“We’re in a race for military superiority, largely through technology,” Kendall told CNBC while at the forum. “China has observed, going back to the Gulf War 30 years ago, how we project power and what we rely upon to do that,” he said.

“They’ve been building systems that are increasingly capable over a long time now, trying to target those assets of the United States,” Kendall said. “We have to respond. We’re in a race in that sense.”

Budgeting Balance

The DOD’s budget offers clues about spending priorities, but when it comes to classified programs, it also only tells part of the story, said Ruth Butchart, an associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who studies remotely crewed systems.

“One of Frank Kendall’s interests is whether or not he can retire existing fleets and create new fleets,” Butchart told FLYING

A sharp decline in USAF spending on remotely crewed systems in the unclassified budget might possibly be balanced by an uptick in classified spending, which isn’t publicly visible, she said.

“In the last few force posture statements before Congress, several of the services have made comments that there’s a shift from the funding and the programs that you can see to the programs that you cannot see,” she said. 

Existing budget priorities and commitments could also create potential difficulty.

“If you wanted to retire a fleet, which I know that’s something [Kendall] has commented on publicly that he would, he would like to retire some of the older models, but that usually takes congressional approval on a per-fleet basis,” she said. 

The move towards remotely crewed systems brings with it a huge benefit for military personnel, she added.

“One of the most important benefits is that having something autonomous or remotely crewed removes the warfighter from often the most dangerous and contested environments,” Butchart said. “Maybe not entirely, but it can take them a bit further from the most contested spaces.”

Kimberly is managing editor of FLYING Digital.

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