Stealthy F-35 expects another role – teamed up with unmanned aircraft

WASHINGTON — In the coming years, with the advancement of the US Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance [NGAD] program, the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter could control up to five unmanned, autonomous, and attritable aircraft. This opinion was expressed by Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, quoted by Defense News.

US military's fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter shot itself
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

His comment comes amid expectations from the US Air Force to find out how manned fighter jets and bombers will combine with drones. The US Air Force may receive this response in late March, as the budget proposal will be published.

“The F-35 could also be teamed up with unmanned aircraft,” Kendall said. This is not the first time Kendall has talked about the possibility of manned aircraft participating in joint drone missions. A year ago, he told Politico that he expected funds to be allocated in 2023 for two combat drones to unite with fighters and bombers. In this regard, in addition to the F-35, which is supposed to be a key “player” in the NGAD program, B-21 Raider long-range bombers are the next idea for joint operational work in the air. “The Air Force needs to define a family of systems for the developed B-21 Raider …, including by combining autonomous drones with the B-21,” Kendall said.

However, there are still many “gaps” and “ambiguities” in the idea of ​​a manned aircraft controlling a team of combat drones in various defense missions. One of the main problems that the Pentagon will have to solve is the operational range of the drones, ie. they have to get as far as the F-35, for example. The second issue to be addressed is the payload. Assuming the drone can support the F-35 to its final destination, will there be any “reasonable payload” left to use, Kendall said.

Russian nightmare: the brand new dangerous U.S. stealth bomber
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In any case, the idea of ​​an autonomous and unmanned aerial vehicle providing air support to a combat aircraft has its advantages. Saving lives using more drones than airplanes is a key factor, as is the cost of such a mission. It would be much more expensive to use several fighter jets than one “manned fighter” and up to four drones. This is the opinion of Lieutenant General Clint Hinote, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration, and Requirements, which he recently expressed.

“Some of the platforms being considered or experimented with are” exquisite, “… others are lower cost and just do one or two things well. There’s also matters of range, speed, weapons capacity, and other factors that affect the cost,” Hinote said.

First, the US Air Force must decide which of the many combat drones and autonomous devices is perfectly suited to perform such missions and “come under the command” of a manned F-35, for example. Analyzes are yet to come, but many experts believe that the Skyborg, currently being developed as an unmanned aerial vehicle and artificial intelligence, is the solution the Air Force is looking for. At least according to Kendall, this is a very possible option.

Skyborg, the Golden Horde and NTS-3

Skyborg is one of the three “avant-garde” programs of the US Air Force selected as priorities at the end of 2019. They are to lead to a jump in the capacity of this formation. In addition to unmanned “companions” for fighters, there is also the “Golden Horde” program aimed at creating communication, cooperation, and thus group behavior of weapon systems [missiles], which will increase their effectiveness on the battlefield.

The third program is the program of the new NTS-3 navigation satellite, which will be remotely programmable in orbit and thus effectively avoid interference. Of course, this satellite will also have better technical parameters of sensors and transmitting and receiving devices than its predecessors.

Boeing unveiled a prototype of semi-autonomous UAV for Australian Air Force
Photo credit: Boeing

Skyborg is to enable the creation of a cheap fleet [it seems that a maximum of USD 10 million per copy] and, consequently, numerous accompanying machines.

The USAF claims that this will make it possible to change the doctrine of its operation, which may be seen as the fact that the United States gained numerical superiority on the air battlefield. Currently, Americans theoretically have it too, but the forces are scattered all over the world and the number of aviation in the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation is expected to increase.

Gaining an overwhelming numerical superiority in the air and with machines that can be sacrificed, contrary to the current doctrine of taking care of every aircraft [moral, political, financial costs], can actually change the way of conducting air battles of the future.


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