The U.S. Air Force Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) concept relies on reuse, not an acceptable attrition rate, a top service official said this week.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters on March 7 at the Air & Space Forces Association conference in Aurora, Colo., that the service’s fiscal 2024 budget contains a plan for 1,000 CCAs to be employed by 200 Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) manned fighters and 300 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35As (Defense Daily, March 7).

“As we embarked on this analysis of the capability gaps that we have, looking at trying to provide mass to the battlespace, there is going to be a lot of trade space that we work in and through,” Air Force Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, Air Combat Command’s director of plans, programs, and requirements, told a conference session on CCA concepts of operations on March 8. “I like to say affordable mass because if we can get a price point that gets maybe up to 1,000 air vehicles out there at a price point that gives us enough capability to provide effect on the battlespace, it’s really a game changing kind of concept. It doesn’t mean though that this is an attritable type of platform. That’s been a common misconception…We’re gonna reuse these air vehicles.”

“The decision for risk and the risk that we will take with these new type of capabilites will be at the mission command or at the combined forces air component commander level,” Jobe said. “It’ll be at the point in time when you’re making your risk decision in combat, not at the industrial side of design, not at the engineering level of detail. That is where a lot of trade space occurs when it comes to sensors, capabilities we’ll put on it with weaponry, communications, and other types of technologies.”

The Air Force fiscal 2024 budget is to include funding for operational unit experimentation with uncrewed, autonomous drones to develop CCA operational concepts and training. Jobe said on March 8 that the Air Force will begin with air-to-air CCA testing at locations like Nellis AFB, Nev., followed by testing on ground and maritime targets.

The “affordable mass” CCA concept “in all of our analytics supported by multiple efforts across the Department of the Air Force, partnered with other departments, specifically the Navy, show overwhelmingly that this provides us an ‘overmatch’ capability and changes loss/exchange ratios dramatically in our favor,” Jobe said on March 8.

Much of the CCA work thus far, however, has been in the virtual environment. So far, the U.S. has just three autonomous drones that it could use for CCA flight testing–one X-62A Variable Stability In-Flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA) and two Kratos [KTOS] XQ-58A Valkyries, said Mike Benitez, a retired Air Force test pilot and the products director at Shield AI.

Benitez referenced analysis by the legendary Air Force Col. John Boyd in the 1980s which concluded that a one percent attrition rate is the maximum the Air Force could sustain in an air campaign without “prohibitive interference” to U.S. air superiority.

“In World War II, the U.S. Eighth Air Force absorbed 10 percent attrition a month for 24 straight months,” Benitez said. “How were they able to do that? It’s because they were producing 1,000 bombers a month so they had a reconstitution capacity. So when we talk about affordable mass at scale that’s capable, you have to have not only the means to produce them, but the means to continually and rapidly produce them.”

To build 1,000 CCAs at a notional rate of 200 per year, “it’s gonna be really important that we can tap into the commercial market that already has production lines that are set up to support this program–the light business jet,” said David Alexander, the president of the aircraft systems group at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. “We need to make sure we have propulsion set up so either they can support that kind of rig, or, even better, maybe the airframe can take two different suppliers for propulsion going forward…Getting into a mature product line will be key because, if you have to redesign engines, we all know that’s billions of dollars that we can’t afford to spend or wait for.”

On March 7, Kendall warned against the Air Force “gold plating” CCA requirements–an everything and anything list “which has gotten us in trouble in the past” on other programs.