As the United States Air Force looks to ensure it has enough fighters and bombers in future years, the service wants to develop and field uncrewed complement systems that have half the unit costs of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) manned fighter and the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 long-range strike bomber under development in Palmdale, Calif., Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on March 3.

“One of the things that people often miss about uncrewed systems is that, if you’re going to use an autonomous platform with a crewed system, it has to have range capability to go as far as the crewed system goes and to support that system with a reasonable payload when it gets there,” Kendall said at an Air Force Association warfare symposium in Orlando, Fla. “We’re looking for systems that cost, nominally, on the order of at least half as much as the manned systems that we’re talking about for both NGAD and for B-21.”

Such uncrewed complements to NGAD and the B-21 could carry sensors, weapons, and “other mission payloads,” Kendall said. The Air Force has said that the manned NGAD, B-21, and possibly the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 are envisioned as play callers for uncrewed systems–one to five of which could accompany each NGAD, B-21, or F-35.

Asked why he used the term “at least half as much” for the desired unit cost of the uncrewed complements, rather than “at most half as much,” Kendall said that he would like to see as low a cost as possible but suggested that the mission systems’ requirements for uncrewed systems likely mean that lower than half the unit cost of the manned NGAD and B-21 would be hard to achieve. In addition, Kendall said that, due to the system maturity of NGAD, he is more confident of the Air Force’s ability to drive down costs for future, uncrewed NGAD systems than he is for uncrewed complements for the B-21.

Peter Rubcic, director of systems analysis and simulation at Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems, said during a symposium session on March 3 that he believes that the half the unit cost goal for an uncrewed B-21 complement system is challenging, but achievable, especially if one factors in “cheap munitions” that the unmanned system could use.

“You think about the trade space of range, payload, stealth, and the ability to deliver affordable effects at range/at strategic depth, I think…there’s a challenge to get to designs that maximize everything,” he said. “What you’re looking for is how can I maximize my forward presence of weapons, and that comes from being able to penetrate and persist in the battlespace so you can unload that entire magazine. You want to make sure you have sufficient sensing—distributed—that feeds that front end of the kill chain so you make the max of every sortie.”

In light of the number of global threats and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ambitions of Russian President Putin, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said last week that the U.S. needs to bolster its allies on NATO’s eastern flank with military technology and invest in systems that are affordable, numerous and survivable–such as drone swarms (Defense Daily, Feb. 24).

“To me, the way those threats have emerged comes down to those two words–information and survivability,” he said. “Our ability to move information and get it to the people who need it most instantaneously and protect it is key to being successful in warfare. And the second thing is, ‘What is a survivable system?’ The swarm of drones issue brings this home. A swarm of drones can get into areas that an aircraft carrier or F-35 can’t. Think about that for a second. We spent all this money–certainly on the F-35 and other things–trying to come up with a platform that’s going to be more survivable. That’s the whole point of the F-35, but there are air defense systems that are going to make it difficult for the F-35 to survive that a much cheaper swarm of drones can penetrate.”

Using lessons from the Skyborg, Loyal Wingman, and DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) programs, the Air Force is to move out on fielding a significant combat drone force,  Kendall said last month. (Defense Daily, Feb. 7).