U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said that his top technology priority is “autonomous behaviors and artificial intelligence decision support,” and he has suggested that the F-35 fighter and the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) manned fighter could serve as play callers for autonomous Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA).

For CCA, the Air Force may glean lessons learned from other manned-unmanned teaming efforts, such as the Skyborg Vanguard program, and may take a step toward equipping fighter squadrons with some initial stage CCAs in next year’s fiscal 2024 budget request.

Retired Air Force Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, a senior adviser with the Roosevelt Group and the former head of Air Combat Command, said recently that the Air Force should equip fighter squadrons with CCAs as soon as possible (Defense Daily, June 2).

“My desire would be to get our hands on 24 or 48 nascent CCAs,” he said. “They don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to meet the final requirements, but let’s get them and let operators start training with them, and then we’ll figure out and refine the requirements from there.”

The Air Force has been developing an acquisition strategy and timeline for CCA, up to five of which may be employed by each “quarterback” F-35A or the manned NGAD fighter, which Kendall recently said has entered the engineering and manufacturing development stage. Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter has said that he envisions more than one supplier of CCA, rather than a “winner take all strategy.”

“One of the things that I think has been critically important about Skyborg is that we did bring operational users in,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Dale White, the program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, said on Aug. 11. “That did two things. It allowed a level of exposure to understand how one might execute operations with these platforms, and number two what things we don’t know now that we need to go do to figure out and understand, and it’s simple things–takeoff, landing, mission planning, things of that nature, and so we’ll continue to feed that.”

“But I think Gen. Holmes is wise because this is a culture shift,” White said. “It’s a different capability, and so there are things we still have to learn, and we’ll use the Skyborg Vanguard program to do that as well as making sure we have operational users inside the process with us.”

Last August, White suggested that it was uncertain whether Skyborg would be ready for transition to an acquisition program by fiscal 2023. But Kratos [KTOS], the builder of the XQ-58 Valkyrie that the service has used as an example of what Skyborg drones may look like, said that it would be ready to meet the fiscal 2023 date (Defense Daily, Aug. 18, 2021).

Asked on Aug. 11 whether the Air Force has a definitive CCA timeline, White replied, “I don’t think that’s something that’s been released publicly yet, My comments [last August] were before Secretary Kendall arrived, and it’s very clear he believes that CCA is going to be a key part of that force mix. It’s part of his strategy. It’s part of the NGAD family of systems, and so we’ll continue working that going forward.”

Kendall was sworn in as Air Force Secretary on July 28 last year.

Other drones, such as Boeing‘s [BA] Airpower Teaming System (ATS) under development as the MQ-28 Ghost Bat for the Royal Australian Air Force’s Loyal Wingman project, are also possible CCAs for the U.S. Air Force. ATS is a stealthy, multirole, unmanned aircraft system.

Each of the manned NGAD aircraft may cost “multiple hundreds of millions of dollars,” Kendall has said, while the CCAs operated by the manned NGAD would help lessen the program’s cost. Because of the extended range and mission payloads needed for CCAs, however, the latter would be significantly more expensive than other drones and would have about half the unit cost of the manned NGAD.