The US Air Force has requested Congress for funding in the fiscal 2024 budget to proceed with the CCA program, as well as the Next Generation Air Dominance program, and aims to have 1,000 collaborative combat aircraft (CCAs) in service. The CCAs will complement and improve the performance of crewed fighter aircraft while significantly reducing the risk to pilots. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown have asked planners to assume that the service may acquire 1,000 CCAs. The Air Force wants the CCAs to cost a fraction of the F-35, which costs roughly $78 million per airframe.

These drones could carry out various missions, including striking targets, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and electronic warfare, and could be less expensive than traditional crewed aircraft, and in some cases cheap enough that the service could afford to lose them in combat. Kendall stressed in his speech that adopting drone wingmen will not mean the Air Force has fewer crewed fighters in its inventory, and can be thought of as remotely controlled versions of the targeting or electronic warfare pods or weapons that crewed aircraft now carry.

Developing the platform, autonomous software and figuring out how to organise, train, equip and supply the program are the three lines of effort that are currently under way, said Brown. The Air Force is conducting experiments on autonomy with the X-62A Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft, a heavily modified F-16 fighter, to design and mature the drone’s autonomous core. Brown also noted that the technology for the CCAs is already available, and the focus is now on how to incorporate it into military applications.

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