High costs for U.S. Air Force manned air-to-air and strike platforms, such as the future Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) sixth-generation fighter, the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35, the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider bomber, and the Boeing [BA] F-15EX, have the service examining a “system of systems” approach for fighters and bombers in which manned aircraft could control a small group of combat drones.

“One of the problems we have in the Air Force is that the next generation of things we’re buying–F-35s and the platform of NGAD–are expensive,” Air Force Frank Kendall told Defense Daily in a Feb. 4 virtual interview. “F-15EX is another aircraft that we’ve been buying. When you look at those unit costs, F-15EX is comparable to F-35, and NGAD is more expensive than those airplanes, you can’t sustain the force structure, if that’s the only thing you’re buying. It’s impossible. So what do we do to augment those types of platforms?”

A number of research efforts have explored the possibilities of autonomous combat drones, such as the Air Force’s Skyborg program, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA) Air Combat Evolution (ACE), and Boeing’s Loyal Wingman project with the Royal Australian Air Force.

The Air Force wants to use those programs as feeders for a classified, service program to field combat drones by 2030, if not earlier, Kendall said.

“It’s pretty clear to me that we can get to an operational capability that’s unmanned that provides useful operational augmentation to a manned platform,” he said. “The concept I have in mind is an NGAD–a manned aircraft; it could be an F-35–that serves as sort of the quarterback, or the play caller, for a small group–think one to five–of uncrewed combat aircraft. We’re going to go out to industry and get industry’s ideas on this. We’ve got some ideas of our own of what this might look like. I think there’s a minimum viable product out there somewhere, which is the first round of this, and then you can build up on that. Once you have a platform, then that opens up lots of other capability possibilities at relatively low cost.”

Kendall has said that the Air Force is principally looking at NGAD as the fighter quarterback, but he said that the F-35 or the Lockheed Martin F-22 could also serve as play callers (Defense Daily, Dec. 9, 2021).

NGAD resulted from the Aerospace Innovation Initiative, kicked off in 2015 by Kendall when he served as former President Obama’s DoD acquisition chief. Kendall said that the initiative led to a contract before the end of the Obama administration to investigate needed technologies for a sixth-generation fighter. Before the Aerospace Innovation Initiative, DARPA had spearheaded an Air Dominance Initiative–a two-year study, begun in 2013, on a “family of systems” approach that would tie together sensors, weapons and battle management for a future fighter.

“I think we’re ready to go forward with that and define a ‘system of systems’ and get on with the initial version of that and field it,” he said. “I’m not talking about a demonstrator. I’m not talking about an experiment. I’m talking about an actual program to go field something. That’s what we’re trying to put together.”

Kendall said that the Air Force has begun discussions with “appropriately cleared” industry representatives to start the process of concept definition that would lead to development.