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In an era when military technology is evolving at lightning speed, the US Air Force is launching a major new program that promises to redefine the standards of collaboration and autonomy in the air. The progressive implementation of the Collaborative Aircraft Combat (CCA) initiative promises to be a real turning point, providing for the integration of a fleet of unmanned and autonomous aircraft. While the program is already generating a great deal of interest and debate, we take a closer look at the implications, consequences and potential of this ambitious undertaking.
In a bid for continuous innovation, the US Air Force is set to invest heavily in the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program. This innovative initiative aims to incorporate a fleet of unmanned, autonomous aircraft, redefining the paradigms of modern warfare. In this article, we take an in-depth look at the various facets of the program, and explore the potential implications for the future of military aviation.
Planning and acquisition strategy
The Air Force is planning a colossal investment of 5.8 billion US dollars (around 4.93 billion euros) in the CCA program from fiscal year 2024 to 2028. The stated goal is to field at least 1,000 autonomous, unmanned aircraft by the end of the decade. Brigadier General Dale White, who heads the program for advanced fighters and aircraft, said the acquisition would be in “two phases”, without providing a detailed timeline for the project. At last week’s Air, Space & Cyber conference, project leaders insisted that the government would not be the system integrator, but would select a contractor to take charge of integrating the combat systems into a coherent whole.
Technological perspectives and innovation
Air Force officials have hinted that the CCA program will be developed in “two phases”. The first would consist of a basic version, designed to rapidly deploy airframes on ramps. This would be followed by a second, more sophisticated version, capable of more complex missions. This strategy is designed to avoid having to maintain or support several variants simultaneously, while retaining an aspect of ongoing competition in the development of mission systems.
The flexibility of the CCA program offers a unique opportunity for potential contractors, especially in the field of artificial intelligence. The scenes at the Tech Expo at the 2023 Air, Space & Cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland, testify to keen interest and broad representation of vehicular capabilities, particularly in AI.
Challenges and trade-offs: in search of the Balance Point
According to White, the goal is to find the “balance point” between range, payload capacity and operational capabilities. At present, no specific target cost for CCAs has been established. Nevertheless, White admits that different cost points are being considered, reflecting variables such as capabilities, size, range, among others. The Air Force is considering balancing these attributes against each other, seeking to optimize investments while maximizing returns.
Preparing for an Evolving Threat Environment
A significant factor influencing the Air Force’s CCA choices is the anticipation of greater attrition in future conflicts compared to the past 35 years. Brigadier General Chris Niemi pointed out that in an evolving threat environment, it would make strategic sense to have platforms whose loss would be more bearable than an aircraft like the F-35 with a pilot on board.
Mass production and cost-effectiveness
Air Force acquisition executive Andrew Hunter stressed the need to build CCAs “on an entirely different scale” in order to achieve “affordable mass”. This implies that the aircraft would be designed from the outset for mass production, which could significantly reduce per-unit costs compared with more complex aircraft like the F-35.
The Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program embodies a bold vision for the future of military aviation, integrating innovation, collaboration and autonomy on a level never seen before. While the initiative strives to strike the right balance between cost and capability, it also opens the door to a new era of advanced military technologies, potentially redefining the standards of modern air warfare.
With massive investments and a two-phase deployment strategy, the Air Force seems determined to push the boundaries of what is possible, while taking into account the realities of an ever-changing threat environment. While the specific details of the program remain to be worked out, the commitment to continued innovation and collaboration between different contractors suggests a promising future for the CCA program.
As the program takes shape, it will be imperative to closely monitor its evolution, assess market responses and anticipate potential implications for the future of air combat. In this context, the success of the CCA program could well signal the dawn of a new era in military technology, where collaboration and autonomy are not only encouraged, but become the norm.
Fly a jet fighter is the fighter jet experience specialist.