The Air Force aims to clarify the vision for teaming pilots and drones

Orlando, Florida — The Air Force’s next budget, due out by the end of March, provides more clues on how to combine manned and bomber aircraft with autonomous combat drones.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall considers this concept so important that two of the seven operational requirements outlined in the keynote speech at the Air & Space Forces Association’s Air Force Symposium on March 3rd. I configured one.

Kendal said that the concept of Classified Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) is up to five unmanned autonomous and consumable aircraft controlled by a single pilot, which is the “play of call” that drones should follow. He repeated his belief that it needed to be combined. He said the F-35 could also be paired with an unmanned aerial vehicle.

And the Air Force must define a “family of systems” for the B-21 Raider Long Range Strike Bomber under development, he said. This is similar to NGAD, including teaming an autonomous combat drone with a B-21.

Kendal first told Politico in December that he would demand money from two fighting drones to team up with fighters and bombers on the 2023 budget, and in subsequent public statements his vision for such a concept. Detailed.

At the AFA, Mr. Kendal said future budget proposals would be “consistent” with the operational obligations he presented.

However, there are many unhashed details about these concepts. For example, according to Kendal, autonomous drone aircraft must be long enough to reach the aircraft they are maneuvering and have a reasonable payload when they reach their targets.

And Kendal said the Air Force wants to cut the cost of these systems in half, if not cheaper, than the manned NGAD and B-21 systems.

“Together, with the B-21 and NGAD platforms, unmanned spacecraft provide a level of functionality for enhanced missions,” says Kendal. “They can provide a variety of sensors, payloads, weapons, or other mission equipment, and if doing so provides significant operational benefits, it also sacrifices them. You can also.”

In a roundtable with reporters later that day, Kendal said more work needed to be done to embody the idea of ​​teaming the drone with the B-21. He said the concept is still in its infancy and its possible cost-effectiveness is somewhat “speculative”. He said that NGAD’s concept of drone teaming is a little more mature and he is very confident in it.

The following week, Kendal said at the Macarize Defense Program Conference that he had a conversation at AFA with several unidentified companies, including small and medium-sized companies working on the “very interesting” of unmanned fighters.

“It’s pretty clear to me that we’re ready to move forward and take important steps in this area,” Kendal said at the Macarize conference. “I don’t know exactly how many steps it will take, but I am determined to achieve it.”

Kendall also wants these aircraft to be adaptable, allowing the Air Force to add technologies and new features when they are available and needed.

Lieutenant General Clint Hinote, Deputy Director of Strategy, Integration and Requirements, told the Macarize Conference that prices for these autonomous drone Wingmen are “everywhere now, and that’s probably a good thing.”

Some platforms under consideration or experimentation are “exquisite”, while others can do one or two things well at a low cost. There are also issues with range, speed, weapon capacity, and other factors that affect cost, he said.

Hinote said Kendal would like to find a way to use autonomous aircraft to offer combat capabilities at a lower price and escape the significant cost increases of fighters and bombers in recent years.

“What the secretary is worried about is that if we don’t change the way we move forward, we’ll have an affordable Air Force,” Hinote said.

Darleen Costello, Deputy Assistant to the Air Force’s acquisition, technology and logistics, said at a roundtable meeting with AFA reporters on March 4 how such autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles could help in combat. He said he was analyzing. And whether it is cost effective.

If the concept shows promising in these studies, Costello said the Air Force could move to make it a program of record. But that step won’t happen this year, she said.

She states that the types of drone wingmen that the B-21 may require may differ from those that make up the NGAD system and require different solutions.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s work on the Skyborg program, an artificial intelligence-powered unmanned aerial vehicle, is one of Kendal’s efforts as a possible example of how this concept works. According to Costello, working in AFRL’s lab has helped inform a wide range of studies on the concept of autonomous Wingman.

In a briefing with an AFA reporter, AFRL commander Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle was confident in Skyborg’s outlook and said last year’s experiment was very successful.

“We’ve adopted features like an autonomous core for basic flight operations. This kind of functionality has been demonstrated on multiple aircraft and different manufacturers, not just one aircraft,” Pringle said. I am saying. “It’s a modular, portable, autonomous core system that’s very exciting. It’s moving the ball forward and we’ll keep it moving for 22 years.”

This includes further experiments with the General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger and Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie drones, she said. AFRL has also confirmed that it can partner with a test center at Edwards Air Force Base in California to support the types of tests required for Skyborg. According to Pringle, the lab is working on the maturation of Skyborg’s technology, especially autonomous core systems.

And in “especially exciting” development, AFRL Edwards’ X-62 AVISTA as a platform for testing Skyborg. VISTA, an abbreviation for variable in-flight simulator aircraft, was born in 1992 as the F-16, but has been greatly adapted to advanced testing aircraft for many years.

Brig. General Dale White, fighter and advanced aircraft program executive officer at the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, said at AFRL’s briefing that Kendal focused on teaming autonomous and pilot aircraft. Said that. His office will increasingly partner with Pringle and AFRL to work more closely with the operational aspects of the service.

This capability will increase as White shifts from the Air Force’s focus on counterinsurgency missions over the past two decades to the potential for high-end combat with countries of equal military strength, such as China. He said it would be important.

“It’s very focused on what fighters need and they’re with us at every stage,” Pringle said.

Stephen Losey is an aerial war reporter for Defense News. He previously reported to the Department of Defense,, which covers special operations and aerial combat. Prior to that, he covered the US Air Force leadership, personnel and operations of the Air Force Times.


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