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Unmanned Flying Teammates.

By John A. Tirpak Oct. 7, 2021

The Air Force is developing semi-autonomous, low-cost aircraft to augment its crewed combat jets in a variety of missions.

Robots will join the Combat Air Forces within the next decade, flying alongside manned airplanes, bearing extra munitions, assisting with surveillance and jamming, and even making kamikaze attacks to defend their wingmen.

These Low-Cost Attractable Aircraft Systems (LCAAS), in development since 2015, seek to affordably increase the size and capability of the fleet without adding more pilots or the airborne life-support systems they require. Unlike manned systems, these aircraft are designed for short operational lives and will never go through depot-level maintenance or service-life extensions.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and USAF Life Cycle Management Center’s directorate for fighters and advanced aircraft lead the development effort, conducting experiments to test airframe designs and the systems’ computer brains, as well as the manned/unmanned teaming concepts.

What constitutes “low cost” is in the eye of the beholder. Gen. Mark D. Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, said in August that he’s keenly interested in having an unmanned, stealthy, jamming aircraft for use as an adversary for training fifth-generation fighter pilots. Such an aircraft, provided it can demonstrate “a significant amount of endurance,” would be valuable if it could be had for a quarter the cost of a manned “Red Air” platform. “That, to me, is ‘low cost,’ ” he said.

Kelly acknowledged “nothing is cheap” and said the term “attractable” helps set the parameters. He predicted such aircraft will become “a growth industry.”

Brig. Gen. Dale R. White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, defined low cost as being “in the single-digit millions” for the aircraft itself. The ultimate price tag, however, will be determined by “the missions we put on it.” As payloads and sensors are added, the fully loaded price “is going to grow to an expensive number,” White cautioned.

We need to get the one ‘win’ and prove the concept; prove the capability and then have it accelerate from there.

“We need to get the vehicles down into the single digit [millions of dollars] … but to be largely driven by the threat of the day,” White said. The more capable the systems, the less expendable they become in combat, he said.

White drew a distinction between low-cost attractable and “swarming” unmanned aircraft, which will be “a much cheaper price point because you’re talking very small, but capable, vehicles.”

A driving factor in developing low-cost attractable aircraft is the increasing sophistication of adversary air defenses, which have become harder to penetrate and more lethal the longer an aircraft lingers near them. Expendable aircraft offer a more affordable and lower-risk means to attack such defenses, compared to high-end piloted jets.

Maj. Gen. Heather L. Pringle, head of AFRL, indicated there are still trade-offs to be made to help senior leaders understand how the costs of such aircraft change based on desired range, payload, and sophistication.

“We’re still putting the different pieces and parts together,” she said. The aim is to develop common elements so the resulting vehicles “are easier to plug-and-play.” A common “chassis” could support mission-specific payloads and modules for defense suppression, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or as a missile carrier. She said engineers are borrowing biological terms, like “genus” and “subspecies” as they tailor requirements for specific roles.

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