Future wars of attrition, as the world has witnessed in Ukraine, point to the need for Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCAs) or other autonomous drones, a senior U.S. Air Force official suggested on Sept. 6.

The regeneration and replacement capacity of the Air Force in a war of attrition is “absolutely a concern,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration, and requirements, told an Atlantic Council forum.

“As we look and we see where our force design goes in the future, we see an increasing likelihood that the first fait accompli-type maneuver is stalled out,” he said. “Then you get to the what’s next question, and what’s next could be a grinding, lukewarm war around the globe between superpowers that would last for years and not necessarily net a whole lot of gain. That would be bad for both sides. We don’t want that, but it might happen anyway. If it did, we have to think about what we can scale.”

“It seems really difficult to scale some of the more exquisite capabilities,” Hinote said. “I’m going to put at the very top of that our operators. It’s hard to mass produce great operators. That includes not only pilots, but special operators, key operators on the ground, at sea, in space, and scaling that in a war of atrrition is going to be really hard, in addition to the exquisite platforms in all the domains. We’re very unlikely to see that scale.”

“Scaling today certainly looks like some sort of autonomous aircraft using the air littorals,” he said. “There are several manufacturers in the United States, not counting around the globe with our allies and partners, that can produce these things. We would need all of them to go after that. In addition to that, I also think there’s a chance that software can scale. We’re clearly seeing DevOps scaling in ways we’ve never seen before. So, if you put those two together, you might have autonomous flight plus software so that, if the autonomous vehicle is so flexible, every day you have a different autonomous vehicle because you load new software in it. We can probably scale that. If so, then we’ve got to be able to lay the foundations for that, not only the technical foundations, but the doctrinal and the organizational foundations in case we do need to scale that in a modern war of attrition.”

In addition to the doctrinal challenge of the Air Force possibly becoming a service that has mostly unmanned aircraft or a significant number of such platforms, building fewer manned aircraft in favor of high numbers of such autonomous aircraft may face opposition from defense companies.

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 Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) manned fighter could serve as a play caller for autonomous CCAs (Defense Daily, Aug. 11).

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.

The Air Force has been developing an acquisition strategy and timeline for CCA, up to five of which may be employed by each “quarterback,” 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.”

The Air Force’s Skyborg Vanguard program has yet to transition to production, but the service has said that the Kratos [KTOS] XQ-58 Valkyrie is an example of what Skyborg drones may look like.

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.