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Video Above: A Warrior Maven exclusive interview with US Air Force Maj. Gen. & Commander of the Air Force Research Lab, Heather Pringle

by Kris Osborn, President,  Center for Military Modernization

(Washington, D.C.) The Air Force may wind up building several manned variants of the emerging 6th-Generation Next-Generation Air Dominance stealth fighter jet and a small family of wingman-type support drones as the cutting edge, yet largely secret aircraft program surges into the future.

Delivery Timelines and milestones are still likely in flux, yet one can likely expect accelerated development of the new aircraft, a demonstrator of which has already taken to the skies.

Described as a “family of systems,” NGAD will consist of a manned stealth fighter platform and a small number of multimission drones operated called Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) which will test enemy air defenses, blanket high-risk areas with forward surveillance and deliver weapons, with humans in a manned aircraft performing command and control.

Air Force Acquisition Executive Andrew Hunter said that the manned NGAD platform itself will likely emerge by the end of the decade and the CCAs will emerge much more quickly as nearer term items. Industry is already significantly invested with their R&D and preparing for a competition to build the new family of drones.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall says the new manned 6th-generation stealth fighter will likely control as many as five drones (CCAs) at one time from the cockpit.

Video Above: Air War 2050: 5th & 6th Gen Stealth Fighter Attacks to Continue

“You can think of him (pilot) as a quarterback or a play caller for that formation.  And you can equip those killer crowds with a variety of mission systems and sensors, including any weapons…..and you can employ these very creatively and create a very difficult problem for the adversary,” Kendall told Warrior Maven at the 2022 Air Force Association Symposium. 

The ability for manned-fighter aircraft such as 5th-generation stealth fighters to control the flight path and sensor payload of multiple drones is fast–emerging if not already here, and the concept is to operate a paradigm-changing next-generation stealth fighter with unprecedented speed, stealth, maneuverability and lethality which is able to extend and expand its combat functionality by controlling multiple drones.

Hunter explained that the NGAD program will adapt and evolve in coming years depending upon requirements development and changing threats.

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“Will there be manned platforms in two variants? We definitely want to think that through. The first task is to deliver a manned platform. We will evaluate along the way as there is an incremental approach to the possibility of variants,” Hunter said.

On the question of variants, one possibility being discussed is the prospect of a larger, longer-range variant for the Pacific which will need to travel great distances across miles of ocean without refueling, yet still operate with the speed, stealth and agility sufficient to prevail in a potential great power engagement. While the Pacific is a vast and seemingly limitless expanse of ocean, territory and islands, the European continent is much smaller, more compact and easily reachable across many countries. Also, the large amount of land in Europe means that aircraft can easily stop and refuel or be refueled in flight over permissive allied, non-combat areas. These tactical circumstances describe slightly different operational requirements necessary for a 6th-generation aircraft to operate in Europe as opposed to the Pacific, thus the possibility of two variants. Given that the NGAD program is being described in terms of being a “family of systems,” it would seem to make developmental sense and fall within the realm of the possible to build different variants for each theater.

Next-Generation Air Dominance

Kendall's said that the manned variant of the emerging 6th-generation Next-Generation Air Dominance family of systems will likely control as many as five drones at one time, seems to envision an operational scenario which will introduce new tactics, massively expand the mission scope of a stealth fighter jet and enable dispersed, yet networked weapons and surveillance nodes to increase attack and reconnaissance options.

Many of the details and exact configurations of this small family of manned and unmanned platforms are either not available for security reasons or still evolving to a large extent…or both. The unmanned systems being built to support 6th-gen manned aircraft are likely to emerge much nearer term than an operational manned variant. Of course the requirements for the unmanned systems, called Collaborative Combat Aircraft, are still in flux yet Air Force Acquisition Executive Andrew Hunter told reporters that the drones are being built according to key operational imperatives.

“We need an aircraft that can perform operations in denied airspace and make sure we have the ability to establish freedom of maneuver. We’ve had successful uncrewed platforms going back decades. It’s challenging to have a platform able to operate in denied air space,” Hunter said.

Video Above: Maj. Gen. Pringle Manned-Unmanned Teaming

The drones, or CCAs, will come in various sizes and operate as surveillance “nodes” and also “attack” drones performing offensive missions and firing weapons.

“We need a platform that is affordable so we can get some mass and not something too expensive that we can’t afford to lose. We are doing design trades. It needs to be able to assist the mission of the NGAD system, and it will involve a weapons carrying capacity to work with a piloted aircraft,” Hunter said.

While the manned NGAD is expected to be ready for operations around the end of the decade, the CCAs could be “soon,” Hunter said. “Industry is expanding R&D and ready for an acquisition program.”

The prospect of multiple, networked CCAs working in close coordination with a manned “host” plane introduces new tactical possibilities, in large measure because they will be networked to one another as well as to a manned aircraft performing command and control. Controlling drones from the air will reduce latency by not needing to send data through a ground station, streamline time-sensitive data and massively shorten sensor-to-shooter time. An armed forward drone, for instance, could autonomously identify a target, use on board computer processing and enable a human decision maker to find and destroy enemy targets from safe stand-off distances. Advanced algorithms and AI-enabled data processing can analyze a host of mission variables from otherwise disparate or separated streams of incoming sensor information.

Kris Osborn is the President of the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, President of the Center for Military Modernization

Kris Osborn, President of the Center for Military Modernization