US Air Force Plans 1000 6th-Gen “Robo Warplanes” To Counter China & Its ‘Ever Growing’ PLAAF

The US Air Force (USAF) just announced its decision to continue funding Anduril and General Atomics for the detailed designs, manufacture, and testing near prototype test platforms under the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program. This marks a major step in equipping the Air Force with next-generation air dominance capabilities. 

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The CCA is part of the USAF’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) Family of Systems. Air superiority remains the USA’s highest priority. This combination of crewed and uncrewed systems is the future of gaining air superiority with reduced human risk, lower costs, and increased efficiency.

CCA offers expanded fighter capacity at reduced costs and flexibility.

What Is Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA)

CCA is a US program for unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) that is considered broadly equivalent to a loyal wingman. CCAs are intended to operate in collaborative teams with the next generation of manned combat aircraft, including sixth-generation fighters and bombers such as the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider.

Unlike conventional UCAVs, the CCA incorporates artificial intelligence (AI) as an “autonomy package,” increasing its survivability on the battlefield. It is expected to cost much less than a manned aircraft with similar capabilities.

The USAF plans to spend over $6 billion on its CCA programs from 2023 to 2028. The success of the CCA program may lessen the need for additional manned squadrons. It will balance affordability and capability.

The principal application is elevating the role of human pilots to mission commanders, leaving AI to operate under their tactical control in relatively low-cost robotic craft. CCAs can perform other missions, such as sensors, shooters, weapons carriers, and much more.

It will be a multi-role aircraft that could be modular to perform different tasks on different days. The CCA will have greater stealth and autonomy to perform missions, including EW and SEAD, and potentially act as decoys.

It can be an aerial refueller. Large numbers of low-end aircraft would be more effective than small numbers of high-end versions. The USAF NGAD is anticipated to use loyal wingmen (CCAs).

DARPA’s Longshot is an air-launched UAV meant to extend a mission’s range and reduce the risk to manned aircraft, which could then remain at standoff range. It could carry an AMRAAM or Sidewinder missile, which greatly extends the range of these missiles.

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Current USAF Proposal

Two years back, the USAF had announced its intent and broad requirements for the desired CCA. Now, as part of the 2024 budget, contracts have been awarded to two companies.

Anduril and General Atomics will be the lead companies. Nearly twenty other companies which had also applied, will remain as possible industry partners and could compete for future contracts. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman were also among them.

The program aims to make series production go-ahead decisions by 2026 and operationalize the systems by 2030. International partnerships have been factored in to achieve economies of scale.

This will also be important with NATO and other allies to increase interoperability. Initial production contracts could be for no less than 1,000 CCAs. Initially, maybe two could be teamed with each of the 200 NGAD platforms and two for each of the 300 F-35s to work out concepts to integrate them into the service, but the full inventory could be twice that size.

The CCA could provide the USAF with “affordable mass” through many more munitions to counter the growing number of aerial platforms and threats from China. In due course, CCAs would take on more complex operational tasks of electronic warfare and aerial combat engagements.

Air Combat Evolution (ACE)

The USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program has been a key contributor to the CCA initiative. According to an assessment by Lt. Col. Ryan Hefron for DARPA, the ACE program seeks to increase trust in combat autonomy by using human-machine collaborative aerial engagements.

ACE will apply existing artificial intelligence technologies to the realistic dogfight. In parallel, ACE will implement methods to measure, calibrate, increase, and predict human trust in combat autonomy performance.

Finally, the program will scale the tactical application of autonomous dogfighting to more complex, heterogeneous, multi-aircraft, operational-level simulated scenarios informed by live data, laying the groundwork for future live, campaign-level Mosaic Warfare experimentation.

It will shift the human role from single platform operator to mission commander. In particular, ACE aims to deliver a capability that enables a pilot to attend to a broader, more global air command mission while their aircraft and teamed unmanned systems are engaged in individual tactics well beyond visual range, in a dynamic environment, and at high speeds.

A rendering for Anduril’s CCA design, the Fury.

Broad Contours Of Chosen CCA

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) plans to build the CCA using experience and components from the MQ-9 Reaper. The project is still at Stage One. Once the companies have been selected and receive formal funding, they will work on detailed designs, manufacturing, and testing of prototype vehicles.

General Atomics is a global leader in drones, having built the MQ-1 Predator and then the MQ-9 Reaper remotely-piloted hunter-killer drones for the Air Force since the 1990s. The experience will help hasten development and later production.

Some of the collaborative sub-system testing can be done on the MQ-9 Reaper. The company’s CCA concept is dubbed “Gambit.” Similarly, Anduril acquired Blue Force Technologies and its “Fury” stealthy aggressor drone program in 2023. Blue Force also specializes in carbon fiber composite manufacturing.

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GA-ASI “Gambit”

GA-ASI “Gambit” is a low-cost Autonomous Collaborative Platform (ACP) designed through digital engineering. It will deliver an extended and enhanced sensing capability. The jet-powered platform is being built for air dominance and will heavily leverage advances in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.

Working alongside human-piloted aircraft, Gambit will enable pilots to see deeper into hostile airspace, detect threats first, and provide time and space for critical decisions and actions at range and scale across the battle space.

Gambit will use AI and autonomy to complete a variety of tasks without being prompted by an operator. Gambit is part of a broader Family of Systems strategy that began with Predator and Reaper and continues in support of USAF’s future force design concepts.

Pilot Workload

There have been concerns about the mother-aircraft pilots’ workload, even using touch-screen devices, especially during high-pressure operational phases of ingress, egress, weapon firing, jamming, etc. AI-supported automation is expected to support many housekeeping and combat tasks.

Also, giving “Uncrewed Wingman” greater autonomy and trusting machines with rules of engagement (ROE) will help. Trust will grow with experience.

Conclusion: CCA Is On & Pushing

For a long time, the large American UCAVs have operated in benign, uncontested combat environments in Iraq and Afghanistan. They faced resistance in the Black Sea and the Red Sea in the ongoing Ukraine and Yemen conflicts. “Operational Imperatives” require that the USAF prepare for competition/conflict with China.

The CCA program “aims to be a force multiplier, developing a low-cost, modular, unmanned aircraft equipped with advanced sensors or weapons. CCA will enable seamless and effective collaboration and augment the performance of manned combat aircraft by providing comprehensive situational awareness, greater lethality, and improved survivability in highly contested environments.

Typically, a modern CCA would be a mid-sized platform and could cost around $30 million, the same as MQ-9, vis-à-vis $85 million for F-35. GA-ASI’s MQ-20 Avenger, Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie, and Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat are the three high-performance UCAVs that can also be integrated into the larger package. AI-enabled self-flying F-16 Viper fighter jets, too, could be embedded.

The CCA is budgeted as part of the NGAD program, one element of the “family of systems” that make up the NGAD concept. The USAF has planned spending requests totaling $6B for research, development, and experimentation efforts under the CCA program through the fiscal year 2028.

The USAF’s budget proposal for the fiscal year 2024 includes a budget request of $490M to accelerate the development, experimentation, and testing of CCAs. So money is being put on the table. The pool of 20-plus companies will keep the competition live.

Deploying collaborative, mission-focused CCAs at a large scale is seen as a cost-effective and pragmatic solution to possess a formidable airpower capacity in response to proliferating hostile stealth fighters – “One Team, One Fight.”

The CCAs can harness cutting-edge, disruptive technologies such as autonomy, machine learning, and AI to maximize the safety and performance of current and future fighter fleets for agile combat employment.

Way Forward India

HAL Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) is India’s lead attempt at Crewed-Uncrewed teaming. It is in collaboration with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), and Newspace Research & Technologies (NRT), one of India’s fastest-growing Aerospace and defense R&D private companies.

DRDO lab CAIR is the main subcontractor to develop an advanced combat algorithm for an artificially intelligent, autonomous target acquisition system.

The system will consist of a manned fighter aircraft acting as the “mother ship” and a set of swarming UAVs and UCAVs controlled by it. A twin-seated HAL Tejas is likely to be the initial mother-ship aircraft.

It will consist of multiple advanced artificially intelligent (AI) based aerial platforms that can act as atmospheric drones for high altitude surveillance, perform autonomous deep penetration precision strikes from a standoff distance with maximum firepower, air launch platform, and loitering munitions with full situational awareness to take out enemy targets from a longer distance, while reducing human effort and the threat on life. In 2019, HAL presented the actual concept design and termed it Combat Air Teaming System (CATS). HAL is planning to complete all the project-related developmental work by 2025.

Newspace Research & Technologies was one of the two Indian start-ups selected and funded through the DRDO Technology Development Fund for the Combat Air Teaming System program, which is part of the Ministry of Defence Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX).

The mother-ship CATS MAX technologies will be first tested on Jaguar MAX, which will be equipped with DARIN III+, before implementing the Tejas Mark 1A platform. The indigenous data link will be tested on Hawk-i aircraft, which is the locally upgraded version of BAE Hawk Mk.132, and later transferred to CATS MAX.

In addition to MAX, there will be four other elements: the CATS Warrior, CATS Air Launched Flexible Assets (ALFA), CATS Hunter, and CATS Infinity. The main combat drone, HAL CATS Warrior, will be able to release a swarm of 24 Alpha-S drones. Drone swarm capabilities have already been showcased.

CATS Warrior will be powered by an improved version of HAL PTAE-7 (previously used in DRDO Lakshya) in a twin turbojet engine configuration. Two to four Warrior drones will fly along with CATS-MAX at distances up to 150 kilometers and accomplish assigned tasks such as scouting, absorbing enemy fire, or even attacking the targets if necessary with their weapons. CATS Warrior can also carry a payload of 24 ALFA-S up to 350 km for release and safely return to base.

CATS Hunter, weighing around 600 kg, will be powered by a single HAL PTAE-7 turbojet engine. It is designed as a low-observable standoff air-launched cruise missile with a 250 kg warhead or cluster munitions and a striking range of 200–300 km. CATS Hunter will be able to return and can be recovered through a two-tier parachute system.

CATS ALFA will be the carrier, which will contain Air Launched Flexible Asset Swarm (ALFA-S) loitering munitions. The carrier will be capable of gliding and can cover around 100 km after being launched from the mother ship.

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After reaching the desired distance, the ALFA-S can automatically separate from CATS ALFA and fly using its own propulsion, thereby increasing the overall striking range. ALFA-S weighs 25 kg, has foldable wings of 1 to 2 meters long, and can carry 5 to 8 kilograms of warhead with a speed of 100 kilometers per hour. ALFA-S can perform autonomous target acquisition, which then assigns and self-lock on the target to perform a suicidal attack using an individual or multiple drones. A Jaguar MAX will carry 24 ALFA-S in 4 CATS ALFA pods. Subsequently, Sukhoi Su-30MKI aircraft will be able to carry 30 to 40 ALFA-S.

CATS Infinity is a 500 kg solar-powered high-altitude drone with an endurance level of as far as 3 months at a cruising altitude of 70,000 ft (21,000 m). With a wingspan of 50 meters, the drone uses multiple ultra-lightweight electric motors that generate a speed of 90 to 100 kilometers per hour.

Infinity is designed to be equipped with a terrain mapping camera and will be capable of producing airborne real-time cueing hyper-spectral enhanced reconnaissance for deep strike aerial missions inside enemy territory. NewSpace is working on high-density rechargeable lithium-sulfur batteries that will help constantly power the system for a longer duration.

HAL, NAL, and NewSpace Research will build the first prototype of CATS Infinity with a 70-foot wingspan. The development will be completed by 2025. On 19 October 2022, a scale model with an 8-meter wing span completed two successful test flights.

In February 2024, a test flight of the scaled-down prototype weighing 23 kg, with a wingspan of 12 m and an altitude of 3 km, was conducted. In May 2024, the scaled-down prototype named HAPS was again flight tested, and it set a new national endurance record of 27 hours at 26,000 ft. Development is now expected to be completed in 2027. The full-scale model will have an MTOW of 450 kg.

All the components of the CATS project are expected to be completed by the end of 2024 or early 2025. In the future, CATS will also include an unmanned cargo transport and rotary unmanned aerial vehicle (RUAV) that can carry a payload of 25–30 kg and drop it around 18,000 feet above sea level. HAL has already started working on a 200 kg RUAV with a range of 100 km.

It can be seen that India is moving slowly and steadily. The IAF and Indian industry fully understand the operational importance of Crewed-Uncrewed Teaming and also the need for ‘Atmanirbharta.’

  • Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retired) is an Indian Air Force veteran fighter test pilot and is currently the Director-General of the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. He has been decorated with gallantry and distinguished service medals while serving in the IAF for 40 years. He tweets @Chopsyturvey 
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