TechUS military on the cusp of AI: investing in a 1,000-strong fleet of unmanned combat aircraft

US military on the cusp of AI: investing in a 1,000-strong fleet of unmanned combat aircraft

Visualization of next generation combat machines
Visualization of next generation combat machines
Images source: © Lockheed Martin

9:20 AM EST, January 30, 2024, updated: 4:38 AM EST, March 7, 2024

The CCA Program involves five U.S. companies: Anduril, Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI), Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. The U.S. Air Force chose these companies to conceive this futuristic unmanned combat aircraft.

While specifics about the signed contracts have not yet been revealed, this year’s program budget is $392 million. This figure is expected to rise significantly, reaching a whopping $6 billion by 2028.

These substantial investments make sense when considering that the CCA program is part of a larger initiative, the NGAD project. The ultimate goal of the CCA is to create harmonious unmanned machines, steered by artificial intelligence, capable of independently combatting air and ground targets.

These planes will serve as "loyal wingmen," assisting manned machines that will function as flying command centers, coordinating the actions of several unmanned aircraft. This role has been envisioned for the B-21 and NGAD aircraft, along with the currently produced F-35 Lightning II.

What further details are known about the CCA program and, more generally, the future of American combat aviation?

The CCA Program: A closer look at autonomous, combat-unmanned aircraft

U.S. plans were first revealed in 2023 by the Secretary of the USAF, Frank Kendall. It's expected that 100 of the latest B-21 Raider bombers (with the option of an additional 49) will be complemented by approximately 200 NGAD aircraft, replacing the retired F-22 Raptors. These planes will be reinforced by 1,000 CCA unmanned aircraft.

The working concept is that 6th generation aircraft expected to come into service within this decade will be technically equipped to control 5-6 unmanned aircraft. However, in reality, this number will likely be smaller. The current plan calls for 400 CCA planes to be designated to 200 NGADs, while 300 selected F-35A will be paired with 600 unmanned aircraft. The specifics of the relationship between the unmanned aircraft and B-21 bombers have not yet been openly detailed.

It's clear, however, that the CCA is projected to play a significant role. New manned combat aircraft are costly, with machines like the F-35 or F-15EX priced at around $80-100 million each. In a large-scale conflict, these aircraft are a scarce resource. Thus, the loss of each machine would be substantially detrimental to airborne capacity.

A budget-friendly approach

Though this hasn't been a concern in past asymmetric conflicts involving the U.S., the narrative shifts dramatically when potential opponents like China, possibly backed by Russia, are brought into the equation. In this scenario, technological superiority becomes less critical as quantity takes precedence. This notion is perfectly encapsulated by a quote attributed to Joseph Stalin: "quantity is also quality".

This was eloquently highlighted by Secretary Frank Kendall, who said, "A weapon that could be under the wing of a manned aircraft is now flying in a separate machine but is managed by the same pilot. (...) the opponent has to consider each of these aircraft, as each poses a full threat".

So, the CCA unmanned aircraft, projected to cost 15-40 million dollars a piece, should offer the volume needed to secure a victory in a large-scale future war. Although humans will control them, these machines are designed to perform key elements of their duties – including air combat or attacks on ground targets – fully autonomously.

The U.S. is currently testing various algorithms not just for piloting aircraft but also for engaging in combat. This involves using tools like the X-62A VISTA, a specific version of the F-16 used for testing combat AI.

The emerging CCA program showcases the advantage the U.S. currently enjoys over the rest of the world regarding aviation technology. They are leading by a generation, at least.

The United States versus the rest of the world

An illustration of this is the F-22 Raptor aircraft. The Raptor, deemed the epitome of aviation technology and unmatched globally, had its maiden flight in 1990. Fast forward to now, advanced combat aircraft produced outside the U.S., like China's Chengdu J-20, are only expected to reach par with the Raptor around the mid-2030s.

By then, the American aircraft will be over 40 years old and retired, replaced by newer machines with even greater capabilities.

This trend is mirrored with bomber aircraft. As the U.S. commences the mass production of the B-21 Raider aircraft, they plan on gradually retiring the B-2 Spirit aircraft. Yet, for the rest of the world, this 34-year-old aircraft remains a benchmark that countries like China strive to achieve. Russia's claims of producing the world's most advanced combat aircraft appear far-fetched in this context.

If all goes to plan, unmanned "loyal wingmen" will become a reality in the U.S. by the end of this decade. Thus giving manned combat aircraft powerful support.

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