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The US Air Force is set to create its fleet of drone wingmen, known as collaborative combat aircraft (CCAs), to accompany piloted jets like the F-35 and future Next Generation Air Dominance platforms. These drones are envisioned to undertake various tasks, from refueling, striking targets, and even jamming enemy signals.
While the Air Force initially planned for around 1,000 CCAs, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall suggests the final count may be higher. With various defense firms pitching CCA concepts, the acquisition process is expected to take up to seven years. The Air Force aims to begin production later this decade and deploy them “in reasonable quantities” shortly after that.
The move toward a more autonomous fleet will see significant development in 2024, with the proposed budget allocating funds for Project VENOM, which aims to test autonomous software on F-16 fighters. This project will involve human pilots flying the aircraft to a designated area, where autonomous control will take over, providing crucial data on the integration of pilots and machine autonomy. Additionally, $69 million is earmarked for establishing an experimental operations unit to develop tactics and understand how CCAs can enhance squadron operations while minimizing risks associated with integrating unmanned drones with crewed aircraft.
Kendall also mentioned the use of Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bats as experimental aircraft to gain operational experience in teaming them with manned aircraft. The goal is to make CCAs “attritable,” affordable enough to be considered expendable in combat, with costs estimated to be a fraction of an F-35’s.