The current generation of aircraft faces an ever-evolving set of challenges that demand the development of next-generation aircraft. One of the most significant factors driving the need for next-gen aircraft is the rise of advanced anti-air defense systems like the S-400, which are increasingly able to detect stealthy aircraft at further distances. Additionally, counter-stealth technologies, directed energy weapons, and hypersonic technologies are becoming more advanced, making it imperative that new aircraft be designed with these threats in mind.
To meet these challenges, the United States Air Force has identified several key requirements for sixth-generation fighters. One of the most important is the ability to operate in anti-access/area-denial environments that will likely exist in the 2030-50 timeframe. This means that the aircraft must be able to counter adversaries equipped with the next generation of advanced electronic attack systems, sophisticated integrated air defense systems, passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons, and cyber-attack capabilities.
In recent years, the U.S. Air Force has been exploring new ways to modernize and upgrade its combat fleet to meet the challenges of the 21st century battlefield. One of the key initiatives in this effort is the development of autonomous Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCAs), which are uncrewed, semi-autonomous aircraft that can operate alongside manned fighter jets in combat.
The idea behind CCAs is to enhance the effectiveness of crewed aircraft, particularly in highly contested airspace. By partnering with CCAs, manned fighters can take advantage of the advanced capabilities offered by these autonomous aircraft, such as electronic warfare, sensing, and weapons carriage. This allows the Air Force to project greater combat power and achieve its mission objectives with fewer crewed aircraft, ultimately reducing operating costs and improving efficiency.
According to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, the Air Force could field 1,000 or more CCAs in the next decade or so, with each manned fighter being partnered with two CCAs. These CCAs would be designed to operate alongside the F-35 and future Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) aircraft, providing advanced support capabilities in combat.
The high cost of new fighter aircraft is among the primary drivers for developing CCAs. At a cost of $80 million to $100 million or more, the price of new fighter aircraft is simply unaffordable for the Air Force. With CCAs, however, the cost is significantly reduced, as these aircraft do not have to carry a pilot’s weight or any of the extensive life-support systems needed in crewed aircraft.
Despite their many advantages, the development of CCAs is not without its challenges. One of the biggest hurdles is ensuring that these autonomous aircraft can operate effectively alongside crewed aircraft in complex, dynamic combat scenarios. This requires a high degree of coordination and communication between the two types of aircraft, as well as advanced AI and machine learning capabilities to help the CCAs make intelligent decisions on their own.
The development of autonomous Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCAs) is a complex and challenging task that requires advanced technologies and capabilities. Here are some of the technology requirements and challenges that need to be addressed in the development of CCAs:
- Autonomous decision-making: One of the most critical requirements for CCAs is the ability to make autonomous decisions in complex and dynamic environments. This requires advanced artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that can process and analyze vast amounts of data from various sensors, such as radar, lidar, and cameras, to make decisions in real-time.
- Communication and networking: CCAs must be able to communicate with each other and with other aircraft and ground-based systems to exchange data and coordinate their actions. This requires advanced networking technologies that can ensure reliable and secure communication in a dynamic and hostile environment.
- Sensor fusion: CCAs must be equipped with multiple sensors that can provide a comprehensive view of the environment, including threats, targets, and obstacles. The challenge is to integrate these sensors and fuse the data into a single coherent picture to support decision-making.
- Robustness and reliability: CCAs must be able to operate in a wide range of conditions, including adverse weather, electromagnetic interference, and cyber attacks. They must also be able to handle malfunctions and failures, either through redundancy or self-healing mechanisms.
- Human-machine interface: CCAs must be designed to enable effective interaction between the human operators and the autonomous systems. This requires intuitive interfaces that can display information and enable operators to monitor and control the system’s actions.
- Ethical and legal considerations: The development of CCAs raises ethical and legal concerns related to the use of lethal force by autonomous systems. These concerns must be addressed through appropriate policies, regulations, and oversight mechanisms.
Overall, the development of autonomous Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCAs) is a complex and challenging task that requires advanced technologies and capabilities. Addressing these requirements and challenges will require a collaborative effort from industry, academia, and government to ensure the development of safe, reliable, and effective autonomous systems for military operations.
Another key challenge is ensuring the security and safety of these autonomous systems. As with any new technology, there is a risk that CCAs could be hacked or otherwise compromised, potentially putting the lives of pilots and other personnel at risk. Ensuring that these systems are designed with robust cybersecurity features and that they are thoroughly tested and validated before being deployed will be critical to their success.
Despite these challenges, the Air Force is moving ahead with its plans to develop CCAs, recognizing that these autonomous aircraft will play a critical role in the future of aerial combat. As Secretary Kendall noted, “We’ve got a lot to learn, and that’s going to take some experimentation… some testing and some careful thought.” But with the right investments in technology and personnel, the Air Force is confident that it can develop CCAs that will be highly effective and safe to use in combat.