Air Force still fleshing out acquisition strategy for NGAD robotic wingmen

An Air Force Research Lab conceptual design for an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (Artwork courtesy of AFRL)

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The Air Force is making progress with its next-generation fighter jet but is still fleshing out its acquisition strategy for the robotic wingmen that will accompany them into battle.

Plans for the highly classified Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative include a new manned stealth fighter that would team with new autonomous drones or “collaborative combat aircraft” (CCA) when they go into battle. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall recently revealed that the manned fighter entered the engineering and manufacturing development phase, and that the platform could achieve initial operating capability by the end of the decade.

During a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Andrew Hunter was asked what the service’s timeline is for fielding the CCAs.

“Still working on that. We’ll have more to say on that as we get on to further down the line on budget planning,” he said.

FedScoop asked Hunter if he envisions having a single prime contractor develop one model of drone to serve as robotic wingmen for the NGAD in its initial phase, or having multiple suppliers provide different variants of autonomous aircraft.

“The acquisition strategy for how we would execute a program that delivers that is still to be determined,” he said. “I will tell you my inclination would not be to go to one — one company that does everything. This is a space right now where there’s a lot of competition. I think it’s a good thing. But exactly, you know, what our acquisition strategy will be is a decision yet to be made.”

Kendall’s mandate is to field new systems.

“There’s been a lot of good work done over the years and a lot of demos done, but we haven’t fielded a lot of capability,” Hunter said. “Fielding things is more expensive than doing demos. So … we’re looking at how do we resource fielding a CCA as part of the operational imperatives. And that has real dollar implications that we have to look at in the context of the entire budget.”

Kendall has estimated that each manned NGAD platform could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Robotic wingmen are expected to be less expensive, but Kendall has suggested the price tag could be as much as 50% of the cost of the crewed system.

FedScoop asked Hunter if he expects the CCAs to be ready for fielding when the manned NGAD platform comes online.

“That would be our goal. Absolutely,” he replied.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has R&D efforts underway to advance autonomy technology for drones, such as the Skyborg program, which involves a slew of contractors.

Hunter said the Skyborg effort isn’t meant to deliver the only autonomy solution.

“It is a good thing if companies absorb those capabilities, and then build upon them in their own systems. So I don’t see right now anything on autonomy where I worry that we’re disconnected or out of touch or seeing things happening in industry that we didn’t want, you know, that are undesirable. I think it’s a good thing if there’s more folks working on more different ways, because this is a tough nut to crack. And as many people as are willing to put money into developing solutions, provided that they’re working for us, I’m all in favor of it,” he said.

However, the focus on fielding a new CCA could result in fewer technology demonstrations.

“That doesn’t mean we’re not going to do any more demos ever. I think there’s still utility in that, particularly for things like, you know, swarming [drones] where … there’s a lot of technology work to be done,” Hunter said. “But we probably will be a little more streamlined and focused on hey, we’ve got a program to field, we’re going to focus on that. We’re going to focus resources on that.”

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Andrew Hunter, autonomy, drones, Frank Kendall, next-generation air dominance, NGAD
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