‘Crystal Clear’ on Drone Wingmen Urgency US Air Force Shows Interest in a Futuristic Fleet

Defence Industry

National Harbor (Maryland): In a move to counter Russian and Chinese threat, the US Air Force has evinced interest in a futuristic fleet of drone “wingmen,” defence company executives said.

The exchange of information  between buyer and builder for the collaborative combat aircraft (CCA), has so far been “crystal clear,” according to David Alexander, the president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the maker of the Gray Eagle and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, among others.

“That’s helpful, especially for companies that want to invest and lean forward and see how we can get speed,” Alexander said at the Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. “I really appreciate the clarity on that.”

The Air Force in the coming years wants to pair pilots with CCAs to afford them greater flexibility and firepower. The uncrewed aircraft could carry out a variety of missions: conducting reconnaissance and gathering intelligence; jamming signals and serving as decoys; and striking targets with their own missiles. Service officials have also said CCAs could range in cost and complexity, with some being expensive and precious while others could be easily traded in combat.

Robert Winkler, a vice president at Kratos, a California-based developer of uncrewed defence platforms, said the Air Force and Department of Defence have “100%” communicated their desires. The Air Force’s proposed budget for fiscal 2024 includes new spending to help it prepare for a future with drone wingmen, including an effort known as Project Venom that involves self-flying F-16 fighters.

A “thought experiment” from the service that went viral highlights the possible dangers that could come from giving autonomous drones too much power.

“The number of people that are sitting in this room is a clear demand signal that this is an important portion of force design for the United States Air Force and for the Department of Defence,” Winkler said at the conference, where several keynotes and panel discussions were standing-room only.

A Kratos Valkyrie drone was earlier this year piloted by artificial intelligence algorithms as part of an Air Force Research Laboratory experiment.

Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, commander of the research lab, in a statement at the time said AI “will be a critical element to future warfighting and the speed at which we’re going to have to understand the operational picture and make decisions.” The Pentagon was juggling more than 685 AI-related projects, including several tied to major weapons systems, as of 2021.

“AI, autonomous operations, and human-machine teaming continue to evolve at an unprecedented pace and we need the coordinated efforts of our government, academia, and industry partners to keep pace,” Cain said.