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

By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) Testing, overwhelming or jamming enemy air defenses, finding high-value targets with long-range sensing, organizing and analyzing incoming data streams, transmitting high-value target detail and even launching precision-airstrikes with missiles, rockets or EW ….are all missions which the Air Force’s emerging “loyal wingman” drones supporting its 6th-generation aircraft are expected to perform.

6th-Generation Stealth Fighter

The anticipated arrival of groups of up to five or six drones to fly in coordination with the Air Force’s emerging 6th-Generation stealth fighter is driving groups of service weapons developers and strategists to refine new concepts of operation for air attack and requirements to align with new technology. The service is developing groups of unmanned systems called Combat Collaborative Aircraft performing an increasingly widening sphere of missions in support of air dominance, air attack, surveillance and forward weapons delivery.

The Air Force’s 6th-generation stealth fighter is already airborne and likely to introduce paradigm-changing measures of speed, maneuverability, stealth, AI-enabled computing and perhaps of greatest significance, manned-unmanned teaming. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall listed a 6th-gen “family of systems” as one of the service’s key “operational imperatives,” meaning the new jet would operate in close coordination with as many as five or six drones.

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"Since its original inception, it has been all about a family of systems, so I think the real question is, how can we tie in some of these other capabilities that we've been talking about with uncrewed systems, collaborative partners, and so forth?” Chris Ristich, Director, Integrated Capabilities Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, told Warrior in an interview.

While critical to the ultimate deployment and operational success of the emerging 6th-Generation fighter, requirements and Concepts of Operation for the Combat Collaborative Aircraft are still being determined as technology continues to evolve and new breakthroughs are discovered. For instance, the Pentagon is now able to demonstrate the ability for cargo aircraft to launch and also “recover” drones with its Gremlins program, so the operational flexibility of airborne unmanned systems is expanding quickly. Ristich made reference to this successful Gremlins program when discussing the anticipated vision for the CCAs.

“I think we're still looking into the Secretary's imperatives. For the collaborative combat aircraft, and how that system will deploy, launch and recover, for example, is not fully defined, yet. They're still exploring that design space. But it could be anything from a Gremlins like concept to an actual combat employment to conventional military operation,” Ristich said.

However, while the requirements and concepts of operation are likely to keep evolving, the CCA Unmanned systems being built to support 6th-gen manned aircraft are expected to emerge much nearer term than an operational manned variant. The requirements for the 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. Survivability and the ability to conduct high risk operations in hostile environments facing enemy fire will be of critical importance to the CCAs, both Ristich and Hunter emphasized. The CCAs will need to test or attack enemy air defenses, jam or interrupt enemy communications, perform precision targeting and surveillance and, in some cases, fire precision attacks against armed, well-defended enemy territory.

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“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.

Hunter and Ristich, who respectively support the acquisition and science and technology efforts, work in close coordination to harvest and expedite breakthrough or promising “disruptive” technologies to the operational sector. With this in mind, Hunter is clear that the Air Force is now amid careful and significant deliberations regarding how best to expedite, produce or “accelerate” platforms to war. This includes accounting for key variables such as producibility and affordability for manufacturing. As part of this, Hunter explained that the CCAs will be “armed” and be “expendable” in the event they are shot down.

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“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.

Hunter of course mentioned this within the critical doctrinal context emphasized by the Pentagon requiring that a human must be “in the loop” when it comes to the application of lethal force. The CCAs, therefore, must be able to mass, be produced in large volume at an affordable cost and “penetrate” enemy airspace. Operationally, the CCAs will likely be used for both “stand-off” and penetrating “stand-in” attacks.

“It's a classic challenge that we're facing right now, penetrating versus standoff, and that continues to be a challenge. I think for the future, I would argue that we will probably see more standoff kinds of capabilities. But once again, it's got to be affordable, affordable mass on target, essentially. You've got to have the right kill chain and the right command and control to be able to enable that,” Ristich told Warrior.

As the vision and ultimate deployment strategy for the CCAs evolves, the drones may be engineered with various payloads such as EO/IR sensors, targeting sights, video cameras, data links and weapons configurations as senior developers shape its intended mission scope.

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"Crewed-Uncrewed teaming is a specific interest area for me. And it's one that was identified, in the operational imperatives as something that we have to continue to evolve and refine. But the question is….how do we want to do that if we're going to have collaborative combat aircraft? Who are they going to be collaborating with[?] What platforms and so forth? And there's, what's interesting about that is, is the range of possible answers, so we could have them on the ground or we could have them in CONUS (Continental US), depending on our ability to ensure communications AND reduce latencies. We are looking at a lot of different options there,” Ristich explained. 

The developmental approach or intended “trajectory” for the CCA is also multifaceted in the sense that it will be centered on both “near”term and “longer”term functionality. Essentially, the technologies woven into the platforms in the near term will be built upon a technological infrastructure with common standards and IP Protocol so new generations of technologies can be integrated as they emerge.

“If we take collaborative combat aircraft, for example, there's a whole series of foundational technologies that are critical to enabling materials to be part of it. Structures, propulsion, but the mission systems to write the systems, the sensors, the communications have to be affordable in order to be an effective solution as well,” Ristich said. 

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 a Masters in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.