The U.S. Air Force is nearing an initial postulation of the numbers/ratios of Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) to accompany the service’s future force presentation construct for the sixth-generation manned Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) platform and the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35A–whether that construct be a traditional Air Force fighter squadron of 24 planes or another entity, a top service official said on Feb. 21.

“I think we’re close to having a hypothesis of what that might look like, but what we’re not ready to do is put a thumb tack in that and start programming against a conceptual idea of what that ‘squadron of the future’ would look like,” Air Force Lt. Gen. James Slife, the service’s deputy chief of staff for operations, told a Mitchell Insitute for Aerospace Studies’ virtual forum on Feb. 21. “I think we need a hypothesis to start with that this is probably about what it looks like, and then we need to engage in some pretty rigorous wargaming, modeling, and simulation work in order to find out whether we need to adjust our hypothesis to react to what we’re finding in our experimentation work.”

“What we’re seeing inside the Joint Force right now, for example, is when they ask for AWACS, they don’t ask for an AWACS squadron,” Slife said. “They ask for a singular airplane. When they ask for a fighter squadron, they’re not asking for 24 airplanes. They’re asking for 12, and so you get to this question of, ‘What is a squadron?'”

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said up to five CCAs may accompany each manned NGAD or F-35A, and Gen. Mark Kelly, the head of Air Combat Command, has said that he envisions multi-role, modular CCAs (Defense Daily, Sept. 22, 2022).

Kelly said last year of CCAs that he “would not lock myself into, ‘It’s a sensor and can’t do anything else, or it’s a jammer and can’t do anything else, or it’s not armed, and you’ll never arm it.'”

At the time, Kelly said that he believed in the next two to three years the Air Force will conduct operational testing of several CCAs out of an Air Force location or locations that can launch drones–Creech AFB, Nev., Tonopah Test Range, Nev., Holloman AFB, N.M., and/or Tyndall AFB, Fla.

“What we may find is it [the number of CCAs per force presentation construct] depends,” Slife said on Feb. 21. “It depends on what types of CCAs we’re talking about. There may be more than one type for different roles. I don’t think it’s necessarily gonna be a homogenous fleet. Depending on the mission, it may be different. You may need a different ratio, for example, for an air superiority mission than you would for a SEAD [suppression of enemy air defenses] mission. How that plays out in the wargaming and experimentation is gonna inform our programming decisions going forward.”

While having units such as the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group at Nellis AFB, Nev., experiment with CCAs is likely down the road, Slife said that with fifth and sixth generation fighters “what we’re finding is that there are a lot of capabilities with those platforms that our existing test and training infrastructure doesn’t support.”

“We don’t have the air space that you need, even in our largest ranges, to be able to effectively employ those platforms the way they have the capability to be employed,” he said. “Furthermore, there are some capabilities that we don’t want to expose in the open air environment, and so, increasingly, we’re putting thought into what is the future of our operational test and training infrastructure, and how much of that migrates to synthetic environments where we can employ all the capabilities at threat-representative ranges in a way that we can’t at existing open air ranges…Employing the platforms–real hardware with real pilots in real air space–that’s gonna be a part of it, but I think before we get to that point, we will have done significant synthetic modeling to understand kind of where those capabilities are best used.”