This month, the Department of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (DAF SAB) is to complete a study of potential concepts of operations (CONOPS) and concepts of employment (CONEMPS) for future Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA).

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has broached the idea of one to five CCAs quarterbacked by each manned Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.

The study by the SAB is to review “relevant DAF operational imperative study products and related government and industry efforts on AI and autonomy to determine potential CCA CONOPs and CONEMPs for NGAD, determine potential uncrewed platforms that could comprise an NGAD FoS [family of systems], and identify associated mission systems, including sensors, weapons, electronic warfare, navigation, and communications systems,” per the Air Force.

Nils Sandell, the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s strategic technology office from 2013 to 2016, chairs the SAB. In January last year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suspended the operations of all DoD advisory committees, including the SAB, pending the completion of a Pentagon review on which advisory committees aligned with DoD priorities and the new National Defense Strategy.

The SAB resumed operations, and Sandell became its chair, in March upon completion of the DoD review.

The SAB study on CCA is to determine “technology requirements associated with potential CCA CONEMPs, focusing primarily on autonomy-related technologies, including requirements for establishing and maintaining own force and hostile track data coherency across platforms, for assigning weapons to targets, and for conducting engagements,” the Air Force said. In addition, the report will “determine and assess alternative allocations of these functions” between the pilot and artificial intelligence and will propose short term and long term science and technology investments for NGAD.

“The uncrewed aircraft will be a combat aircraft employing a distributed, mission-tailorable mix of sensors, weapons and other mission equipment,” the Air Force said. “They will be significantly less expensive than the crewed platform so that they might potentially be used as attritable assets. To realize the CCA concept with acceptable pilot workload, the uncrewed aircraft will need to be semi-autonomous, taking high level direction from the pilot and then autonomously implementing this direction. Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are believed to enable this approach. Research programs at the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and elsewhere have demonstrated some of the needed capabilities. There are also commercial systems, notably self-driving cars, demonstrating some of these technologies.”

Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, the head of Air Combat Command, said last month that he foresees the Air Force conducting operational testing in the next two to three years of several CCAs out of an Air Force location or locations that can launch drones–Creech AFB, Nev., Tonopah Test Range, Nev., Holloman AFB, N.M., and/or Tyndall AFB, Fla. (Defense Daily, Sept. 22).