The U.S. Air Force may develop and field low-cost attritable/reusable (A/R) drones with a range of roles over the next decade, but the service has yet to say how or whether such drones would count toward its 2018 goal of increasing the number of Air Force squadrons by 24 percent, from 312 to 386.

One possibility is a number of composite squadrons having manned and low-cost unmanned aircraft for different missions, such as air dominance and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). In such a scenario, A/R drones would not add to the number of squadrons since they would be part of squadrons having both manned aircraft and UAVs.

“Certainly, we talk about the possibility of forward posturing some of these [unmanned] capabilities in theater so that you would have in the Pacific and Europe to our combatant commanders kind of a ready, postured force to augment some of the other capabilities we already have in theater,” Air Force Col. Don “Stryker” Haley, deputy division chief of Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability’s (AFWIC) futures and concepts division, said on Oct. 1 during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation virtual forum.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has been partnering with Kratos Defense and Security Solutions [KTOS] on tests of the company’s XQ-58A Valkyrie drone as part of the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) program.

The 3,000 nautical mile range of Valkyrie and other such long-range drones may prove beneficial. “When we’re trying to force project over large pieces of airspace, tanker gas becomes a real bounding factor for us,” Haley said. “When you start taking a system that can bring effects without taking tanker gas, that becomes pretty powerful.”

Artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled A/R drones may carry decoys, air-to-air missiles, electronic attack, communications nodes, passive sensors to allow longer range weapons engagement, and “daisy chain” precision, navigation, and timing (PNT) in highly-contested environments.

“Technologies are sufficiently mature to support the near-term fielding of AI-enabled A/R UAVs that could cost as little as $2 million–3 million each—or as much as $20 million depending on their mission systems,” according to a new Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies paper, Understanding the Promise of Skyborg and Low-Cost Attritable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles by Mark Gunzinger, the institute’s director of future concepts and capability assessments, and Lukas Autenried, a senior analyst at the institute. “Due to their limited lifespans, A/R UAVs will not need the same depot maintenance and other investments that modern manned military aircraft require to remain in the force for decades.”

Air Force A/R drones “will also not need to fly as frequently as manned aircraft for training and other purposes,” the paper said. “These differences reduce the projected cost to fly A/R UAVs to less than 10 percent of the flying hour cost for a mature manned weapon system, such as the F-16.”

The Air Force launched Skyborg in May in an effort to field an artificial intelligence-driven system to be a “quarterback in the sky” for manned aircraft. Skyborg is one of the service’s three “Vanguard” programs, which are the service’s top science and technology priorities and are meant to demonstrate the rapid viability of emerging technology (Defense Daily, Nov. 21, 2019).

Skyborg is to develop a family of attritable aircraft systems with a common AI backbone that can train alongside manned aircraft and eventually help complete tasks, fly ahead of Air Force pilots in non-permissive environments, and frustrate adversaries.

AFRL has used the XQ-58A Valkyrie as an example of what the Skyborg prototype could look like.

“Given their low cost, A/R UAVs should form a distinct part of the solution to the USAF’s combat mass deficit,” according to the new Mitchell Institute paper. “Although A/R UAVs cannot replace 5th generation stealth aircraft, it is unlikely the Air Force will be able to buy all the high-end capabilities it requires—and numbers count. If fielded in large enough quantities, U.S. commanders could simultaneously use A/R UAVs in multiple areas of the battlespace to degrade an enemy’s combat tempo, overwhelm its air defenses, and prevent it from concentrating forces. Using them in this way may be somewhat similar to how the Army used its Sherman tanks during World War II.”

Gunzinger told the Aerospace Nation forum on Oct. 1 that A/R UAVs provide the Air Force with a “new option to grow” and will be a “big step toward creating a future Air Force that is enabled by artificial intelligence.”

“That said, they [A/R UAVs] are not a way to build the future Air Force on the cheap,” he said. “They are reusable force multipliers, but the attributes of 5th generation aircraft–their low observability, their massed sensors, integrated automated information processing and fusion capabilities–are force multipliers too. It’s bringing together those force multipliers. It’s the synergies we need in the battlespace.”

Former Air Combat Commander Gen. James “Mike” Holmes told an Air Force Association air warfare symposium in February that the Air Force could see low-cost, attritable UAVs replacing older Block 25 and Block 30 F-16s over the next eight years and that “I would hope, 30 years from now, I’m not still trying to maintain 55 fighter squadrons.” Holmes said that ACC was shifting from a fighter aircraft numbers perspective to a capabilities focus.

“I wouldn’t say that in our new design that we see attritable squadrons replacing, for instance, F-16s,” Haley said on Oct. 1. “What we’re trying to do is conceive new ways of warfighting.”