The U.S. Air Force plans to embark on an acquisition program that will utilize lessons learned from the Skyborg attritable demonstration to field combat drones that permit manned aircraft, such as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter and the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider bomber, to control the drones, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on Dec. 9.

NGAD is to be a family of systems, likely to include a manned, stealth fighter.

Kendall said at a Defense One forum on Dec. 9 that he intends to operationalize unmanned combat aircraft in the fighter category.

“Basically, the idea here is that you have one or more, nominally up to five, lets’ say, unmanned combat aircraft that are controlled by a single, modern, manned aircraft,” he said. “NGAD is the one we’re looking at principally, but you could also do that with F-22 potentially, or F-35. The idea is that the manned aircraft is essentially calling plays, and he’s using those other unmanned combat aircraft as a formation to do things that make sense tactically. This opens up a whole bunch of opportunities, but the exact mix of that and what you’d carry on those unmanned combat aircraft and what kinds of plays you’d pre-program for the operators to select are all things we have to go sort out.”

“We’re doing something very similar with the B-21,” Kendall said. “The B-21 is a very expensive aircraft. It has a certain payload and range. We’d like to amplify that capability. It has to be able to penetrate, which is valuable, but individual B-21s are gonna be very expensive so what we want is something that can operate with it. The tactics are very much to be determined. We’re gonna sort that out and think about unmanned combat aircraft, how to network them together under the control of an operator of a B-21 to operate as a formation in a loose sense against a modern enemy.”

The Air Staff’s A9 studies, analysis and assessments directorate is now under the secretariat to study the issue along with the U.S. Space Force’s Space Warfighting and Analysis Center (SWAC), Kendall said.

Air Force Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones said last week that the integration of autonomous systems to counter high-tech potential adversaries, China and Russia, will be among the Air Force’s top modernization priorities (Defense Daily, Nov. 30).

“I view both the [Australian] Loyal Wingman program potentially; some work that my friend, Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary for research and engineering, is doing; the Skyborg program; and other things as essentially feeders of technology into the [acquisition] program,” Kendall said on Dec. 9. “We’re in the process of figuring how that all comes together. What I’m describing is an acquisition program, a weapons system procurement program.”

“We’re going to go from demonstrations and experiments and technology maturation/risk reduction into full-scale development or engineering, manufacturing and development into production,” he said. “It will take a period of time to sort all that out, and then we’re going to get on with building something we’re gonna field. It’s a commitment to going forward in a direction that we have been thinking about and experimenting with but hadn’t committed to before. That’s a major change. I’ve had enthusiastic support for these ideas from the leadership in the department and from others I’ve talked to inside and outside the Air Force.”

In August, Air Force Brig. Gen. Dale White, the program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, suggested that it was uncertain whether the Skyborg Vanguard program for teaming low-cost attritable aircraft and manned aircraft 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).