The US Air Force's Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program has marked a significant step forward in advanced uncrewed aviation, with contracts awarded to 5 companies to design and build autonomous wingmen platforms.
The last selected company is Anduril, a non-prime vendor and US autonomous systems start-up, which will join in the competition the “big 4”: Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. The details of the contract largely remain classified, but all the selected companies are to be expected to design and manufacture prototype platforms.
The USAF's intention is to operate these uncrewed autonomous air platforms as part of a network, alongside other aerial platforms such as 5th and 6th Generation aircraft. This network-centric concept proceeds and ties together with the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program envisioning a system-of-systems approach to integrate next-generation fighter aircraft, weapons, sensors, networking, and battle management systems to maintain air superiority in the coming decades.
The potential assigned missions to the CCA range from carrying weapons and flying ahead of other aircraft to provide ISR and relay, valuable early warning and evade detection, to electronic warfare and striking targets either on their own or in accordance with the rest of the force. To achieve these missions, the CCA will leverage on highest-level characteristics such as autonomy, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI). Using this capability at a large scale is seen as a cost-effective and pragmatic solution to own a formidable airpower capacity in response to proliferating hostile stealth fighters.
In accordance with the USAF Secretary’s advertised concept of “One Team, One Fight”, at this stage, the USAF requirement is to have at least 1,000 uncrewed CCA in the near-term future. This number is based on the assumption of teaming 2 CCAs with each of the 200 NGAD platforms and 300 F-35. In order to advance on this path, the service budget proposal for FY 2024 includes a budget request of $490m to accelerate the CCA project.
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