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Drones And New Technologies Are Reinventing The U.S. Air Force And Future Airpower

A U.S. Marine Corps XQ-58A Valkyrie, highly autonomous, low-cost tactical unmanned air vehicle, conducts its first test flight with a U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft assigned to 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Oct. 3, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Tristan McIntire)

Lessons learned from current conflicts show that a deep, fundamental shift in airpower is occurring worldwide and the Air Force needs to adapt, says its chief.

During his State of the Air Force address at the AFA Warfare Symposium, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force Gen. David W. Allvin said the service will face historic changes as it needs to adapt to the deep, fundamental shift in airpower occurring worldwide. Current conflicts are in fact showing how drones, new technologies and low-cost weapons are reshaping the modern battlefield.

“The changing character of war is coming upon us,” said Gen. Allvin in his address on Feb. 13. “The theater of war is going to require us to fight different. This will be part of the reinvention of our Air Force and airpower into the future.”

The proliferation of these systems is especially visible in Ukraine, a highly contested airspace where air superiority has not yet been achieved after two years and which forced both sides to heavily rely on unmanned systems, artillery, trenches and electronic warfare. This consequently led to the continuous development of new drones and EW systems which keep appearing on the battlefield, often in response to new advancements of the other side.

Many of these unmanned systems have a very low production cost, contrary to the weapons required to counter them, and this allows enough mass production to even saturate defense systems. The cost disproportionality between these novel unmanned attack systems and the required defense systems is another important aspect that has to be considered in preparation for future fights.

“You’ll see this proliferate more and more, which makes the importance of coming up with a low-cost solution to taking these things down, so we’re not taking $700,000 missiles and shooting down a $5,000 drone,” said Gen. James B. Hecker, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa and NATO Allied Air Command. “But we want to inflict that cost maybe on our enemy should we be able to deter so I think you’ll see that we’ll be getting some of those capabilities as well.”

Collaborative Combat Aircraft and Air Launched Effects are some of the programs already in motion to reflect this important change, but there also other smaller-scale projects going on, evaluating low-cost, commercial off-the-shelf and even 3D printed UAS. While some years ago we might have thought that unmanned systems would replace traditional airpower, today’s plans are to use them to enhance the capabilities of manned aircraft.

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A screencap from an Air Force Research Laboratory’s video showing the MQ-28 Ghost Bat and the F-22 Raptor. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

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A screencap from an Air Force Research Laboratory’s video showing the MQ-28 Ghost Bat and the F-22 Raptor. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The CCA programs aims to develop autonomous unmanned aircraft that will cooperate in the “loyal wingman” role with fifth- and sixth-generation combat aircraft as part of manned-unmanned teaming concepts. As already reported, the U.S. Air Force wants to procure 200 NGAD fighters along with 1,000 CCA that will cooperate in the “loyal wingman” role with the sixth-generation combat aircraft. While each NGAD aircraft is expected to hundreds of millions of dollars, the CCA are designed to cost “in the order of a quarter or a third” of the current unit cost of an F-35.

Considering the average unit price for F-35s in the latest production lots is around $82.5 million, the CCA’s price could be between $20.6 million and $27.5 million. This is less than the price of a MQ-9 Reaper, which costs roughly $32 million. Even if the cost is “small”, the CCA are not considered expendable or attritable, but rather “systems that you can accept losses of a fraction of them and not have a big operational impact”.

The Air Force is still defining the right balance in terms of requirements for the CCA program, such as the range and payload characteristics that need to be consistent with the operational concept of the drones either flying ahead of or accompanying crewed fighters during their missions. An aspect already clear is that the CCA will be modular, with some carrying weapons and some carrying other systems.

Last year, Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Anduril received contracts to design and build CCAs. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall now said during the AFA Warfare Symposium that the Air Force plans to award up to three contracts for the first increment of CCAs in the following months, followed by the second increment in FY2025.

The second increment, which will be similar to the first one, could also include international partners. Kendall did not elaborate further on that, only mentioning they are the United States’ closest partners, however some reports in late 2023 mentioned that Australia and Japan expressed their interest in joining the CCA development.

The companies who will be awarded contracts this year will continue the development and, in a couple of years, there will be a further selection to move in the production phase, said Kendall, adding also that more than one design could enter production. Companies not selected for the first increment can still be involved in the next ones.

Increment 2 will be a clean sheet design, possibly a higher end asset, however the Air Force is still working on the requirement, which could be very different from the ones of the first increment. Air Force’s Service Acquisition Executive Andrew Hunter said the focus on Increment 1 is to quickly put CCAs in production, but following increments will have a greater degree of autonomy, as well as other capabilities.

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Six F-15E Strike Eagles assigned to the 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS) line up on the flightline at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 25, 2021. Pilots and maintainers assigned to the 494th EFS, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing executed the first combat tactical ferry mission as part of an Agile Combat Employment operation in a deployed theater. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais)

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Six F-15E Strike Eagles assigned to the 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS) line up on the flightline at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 25, 2021. Pilots and maintainers assigned to the 494th EFS, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing executed the first combat tactical ferry mission as part of an Agile Combat Employment operation in a deployed theater. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais)

While the addition of the CCAs is a big change for the Air Force, it is not the only one. The service wants, in fact, to reorient major commands to focus on their combat readiness, while future planning and development will be taken over by the new Integrated Capabilities Command. This is intended to make the Air Force more competitive in face of the intensifying threats of new conflicts.

“We need to both be ready today with the force that we have. We need to approach that with a sense of urgency,” said Gen. Allvin. “But we also need to update—reoptimize, dare I say—the processes, the policies, the authorities, and in some cases, the structure to be competitive for the long term. We need to do both of these at the same time. And that’s the goal of these decisions.”

Another big change will involve operational wings, that will be restructured to work as “units of action”, with three new types of wings designed and structured for its purpose. This new concept will create Deployable Combat Wings, In-Place Combat Wings and Combat Generation Wings, whose priority is to be ready and combat effective on Day One of any conflict, by training, deploying and fighting together.

“Our current paradigm in how we deploy forces often is that we will take one of the mission elements—a fighter squadron or a bomber squadron or a tanker squadron, or what have you, and we’ll take the rest of the forces and sort of crowdsource it from amongst our Air Force, and they will meet in theater,” said Gen. Allvin. “That does not work against the pacing challenge. We need to ensure that our combat wings are coherent units of action that have everything they need to be able to execute their wartime tasks.”

Deployable Combat Wings are meant to pick up, deploy, employ, generate, and sustain airpower in theater, with everything they need to go fight successfully as a unit. The difference with the In-Place Combat Wings is that these can project combat airpower from their home stations. The work on the new wings started last years as the Air Task Force concept, which later evolved to be more modular and adaptable to the needs of combatant commanders based on the particular conflict.

“What if the combatant commander wants different combinations of airpower to come and support a particular crisis or conflict? So let’s say, for example, we’re going to deploy an F-15E wing, that deployable combat wing needs to be ready to take those forces and deploy forward with all the C2 and all the sustainment,” said Gen. Allvin. “But what if we also would like an F-35 squadron as well? Well, that F-35 squadron should be able to plug into that unit and go. What if we want to use tankers to be able to generate sorties or C-130s to be able to have theater airlift in there? Those mission layers at the squadron layer should be able to plug into this deployable combat wing.”

A timeline for these changes is not yet available, although the Air Task Force concept was planned to be tested later this year. As for the cost, Secretary Kendall said that no funds were requested for this restructuration in FY24 and FY25, using instead budget reprogramming authorities to move funds as needed.

About Stefano D’Urso
Stefano D’Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he’s also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.

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