‘Big Three Out’ – Anduril and GA-ASI will develop and test CCA

Acting Deputy Secretary Frank Kendall of the U.S. Air Force recently announced a reduction in the number of companies being considered for the upcoming development phase of the Collaborative Combat Aircraft [CCA] program. The mission of the CCA program is to create unmanned aircraft that will work in unison with our current fifth-generation F-35s and future sixth-generation NGAD fighters. 

While it’s too soon to state definitively, the influence of CCAs could mark the most substantial evolution in the deployment of airpower since the introduction of jet propulsion. According to this announcement, startups, Anduril and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems [GA-ASI] have been selected to build and test the prototypes. Notably, this decision leaves major defense contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, on the bench. They, along with 20 other participants, will continue to contribute to the program through the performance of individual project tasks. 

Andrew Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, has underlined the paramount importance of collaborating with current and future industry partners. In a press release, he stated, “As we progress into the next development stage of the CCA program, the insights, innovative thinking, and resources of our industry partners will remain crucial. Their contributions will help elevate this initiative, paving the way to success and shaping our future combat operations.”

Foreign participation

There’s a likelihood of the U.S. inviting allies to join the CCA program. This approach echoes the development process of the F-35 Lightning II, an initiative where the U.S. has extensive experience. 

The department leading this effort, the Department of the Air Force [DAF], has announced its exploration of international collaboration. Specifically, the department is considering potential foreign military sales associated with the CCA program. Such partnerships not only promise affordability and scale but also foster integration and interoperability among our international allies. 

'Big Three Out' - Anduril and GA-ASI will develop and test CCA
Photo credit: Twitter

The DAF didn’t stop there; they are also planning the commencement of development for the second increment of the CCA program. This process is slated to kick off later in 2024, with all current and potential industry partners from the CCA supplier pool being invited to compete for this subsequent venture, as outlined by the DAF press office.

What is the CCA program?

The U.S. Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft Program is a pivotal strategy for enhancing America’s air force power. This blueprint aims to leverage cutting-edge technology and inventive tactics to bolster the efficiency and impact of air combat operations. 

Tailless design - this NGAD idea can achieve maximum stealth
Photo by IG @aviationdesigns_mg

This strategy hinges on adopting a network-centric mode of air combat. Instead of having aircraft operate as independent entities, they are integrated into a broader, interconnected network. This sophisticated system facilitates real-time data exchange and collaboration, heightening situational comprehension and refining decision-making processes. 

Through this program, the Air Force is striving to design and incorporate progressive technologies such as artificial intelligence [AI] and machine learning into their aircraft. These technological advancements have the potential to automate certain operational elements, reducing the workload on pilots and allowing them to concentrate on the more intricate aspects of the mission. 

The Collaborative Combat Aircraft Program underscores the importance of growing unmanned aircraft systems. These unmanned entities are capable of operating alongside manned aircraft, thereby extending their capabilities and adaptability. For instance, these automated systems can undertake high-risk missions, which in turn helps to mitigate hazards typically faced by human pilots.

Is this the secret NGAD fighter jet of the US? Probably not
Photo credit: Twitter

CCA is the highlight of the NGAD program

The precise specifics of the NGAD initiative aren’t yet available. However, we do know that the program will revolve around a sixth-generation fighter, the Penetrating Counter-Air [PCA]. This fighter is planned to succeed the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor. 

Expected to feature sixth-generation technology, which remains mostly undefined as of now, the PCA will likely surpass its fifth-generation predecessors. One of the potential features of the sixth-generation technology could be a dual option — it could be either manned or unmanned. This implies that the PCA might have a pilot on board or could be operated remotely. Regardless of the mode of operation, the PCA on the NGAD platform will team up with the uncrewed collaborative combat aircraft [CCA]. 

B-21 was unveiled - the backbone of deep penetration US aviation
Photo credit: US Army

The CCA, as its name suggests, will be an autonomous drone. In the future, every PCA [and the F-35] is anticipated to be accompanied by two CCA wingmates. This indicates that unmanned aircraft will play a pivotal role in future force formations. The emphasis of the NGAD on unmanned technologies highlights the striking contrast with the US’s other large-scale aviation project, the B-21 Raider, which has been relatively silent about its unmanned abilities.

CCA as a response to Russia and China

Artificial Intelligence serves as the foundation of Combat Cloud Aircraft [CCAs]. Their primary design focus is to accompany manned aircraft during missions. These CCAs handle tasks that involve either clearing the route for the accompanying manned planes or taking on riskier roles to counteract the integrated air defenses being built, particularly by countries like Russia [which is also incorporating S-500 anti-aircraft systems] and, notably, China. 

In the pipeline for these CCAs is the integration with the new B-21A Raider strategic bomber, which is currently under testing. Furthermore, these unmanned combat aircraft are also expected to serve as carriers for weaponry or to participate in other forms of manned-unmanned teaming [MUM-Ts].


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