U.S. Air Force | December 14, 2021
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, 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. The B-21 is a very expensive aircraft. It has a certain payload and range, 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.”
- Kendall told Politico
The Air Force’s secret NGAD family of capabilities is expected to be operational by 2030.
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.
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, Additionally, the aircraft responded to navigational commands, stayed within specified geo-fences, and maintained flight envelopes.”
- Air Force Life Cycle Management Center said following the flight test.
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.
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.
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.
Existing budget priorities and commitments could also create potential difficulty.