Air Force bullish on drone future: ‘We’re gonna need them around just about everywhere’

XQ-58A Valkyrie

An XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle launches at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., Dec. 9, 2020. The flight successfully demonstrated the ability of new communications data to exchange information with an F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II and the transformative warfighting impact of the open architecture underpinning the Advanced Battle Management System. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua King)

AFA 2023 — Drones dominated the discussion during the first day of the Air and Space Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference, where officials were eager to talk up all the ways the new technology could change the nature of warfare. 

While the Air Force’s forthcoming autonomous wingman effort known as Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) was a key topic of discussion with several senior officials, other drone concepts were also detailed — a sign of how ubiquitous the topic was at the start of the conference, held in National Harbor, Md.

Kicking off the CCA discussion was Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, who heads US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM). Among the numerous ways TRANSCOM is thinking about how to adapt to future operations, such as deploying ground-based decoys, Van Ovost said during a briefing with reporters CCA might present a new possibility for protecting mobility aircraft.

“Do we really need… F-15s to watch every tanker, or is there going to be some CCA capability that we’re going to have, you know, that goes with us?” she asked.

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For Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, who commands Pacific Air Forces, CCA are a new opportunity to befuddle adversaries with targeting dilemmas, like whether blowing up a drone is worth the missile that doing so would require.

“I really am a CCA fan, and the main reason why I like CCA is because you can create mass,” he explained in a separate briefing. With so many of the drones flying out in a battlespace, “your adversary would have to worry about and wonder, you know, is that something I have to use some munitions on, or is that something that I can let go? And they’re not going to be able to tell,” he added.

CCA can also augment the stealthiness of fifth-gen jets, Wilsbach said, which could hide among the drones and confuse adversaries who are “so enamored with everything else that’s going on” that they won’t be able to react in time.

“What I would say is, be on the lookout [because] there’s going to be a CCA near you …because we’re gonna need them around just about everywhere,” Wilsbach said.

CCA Categories; Replicator ‘Candidates’

Lawmakers have been largely receptive to the service’s CCA efforts, though Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall made clear that not all steps taken by them have been helpful.

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In particular, Kendall zeroed in on a set of categories delineated by the House Armed Services Committee, which attached a price ceiling to three different kinds of CCA designs.

“We’re very opposed to those cost targets,” the secretary told reporters. “I don’t know where those categories came from. They’re not what we’re doing.”

Kendall also discussed Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks’ “Replicator” initiative, where the Pentagon hopes to field thousands of drones over the next two years. For that effort — which Hicks said at the Defense News conference last week would require no new funds — DoD-level resources will be directed toward programs selected by the Innovation Steering Group, Kendall said. The Air Force has “candidates” for that funding, he said, though “we haven’t resolved all that yet.” 

It’s still unclear exactly how the military services might achieve Hicks’ goal — and at least one expected user of the capability admitted recently to being in the dark entirely on the program.

“I’m Wikipedia-deep,” Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, who heads the service’s Air Combat Command, said at the Defense News conference. “You guys probably know better than me. I’m not going to be much help with that as far as [how] the CONOPS [concept of operations] integrate,” he added.

Minihan’s Mini Drones

Gen. Mike Minihan, head of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, also had some ideas for how drones could change his operations.

In a memo earlier this year that quickly went viral due to a prediction by the general that war with China would break out in 2025, Minihan ordered KC-135 crews to develop a plan for launching “up to 100 off-the-shelf size and type UAVs from a single aircraft.” Smaller in size, it’s likely these drones wouldn’t fit the CCA mold officials are envisioning, though Minihan outlined several ways the uncrewed systems could make a difference in a fight. 

“A drone could come out, and it could provide precision, navigation, timing to someone that doesn’t have it. It could fly a life vest down to a downed pilot or a radio to a downed pilot. It could actually fly down and survey the runway which you’re about to land on,” he said in a press briefing.

Minihan listed off several other examples — like serving as a decoy or landing somewhere to “go to sleep” until it’s ready for use — and said the drones could be shot off an aircraft with something similar to a Common Launch Tube used by special forces. 

The AMC commander said he expected the idea to become a reality during his remaining time in the role. 

“I think to a certain extent we already have these abilities,” he added. “We just need to make sure that we can execute that safely and then get some operational reps underneath our belt, and then move forward quickly. I don’t think it’s expensive.”