US autonomous F-16 is set as a core of an F-35 combat squadron

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Looking towards the future of military aviation, the US Air Force is pushing forward with tests on autonomous flight operations using F-16 ‘Vipers.’ Set to take place in 2024, the aim is to develop a squadron of drone wingmen able to support manned fighter jets. 

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

These tests will be carried out under the banner of ‘Project VENOM.’ Designed to kickstart innovation, Project VENOM, standing for “Viper Experimentation and Next-generation Operations Model,” will integrate autonomous capabilities into six F-16s. 

The F-16s will undergo a transformational process, starting as human-controlled jets, and then transitioning to controlled by autonomous software during in-flight tests. The USAF is eager to validate the effectiveness of autonomous flight, aligning with the Collaborating Combat Aircraft [CCA] concept. 

Photo credit: USAF

In the overarching vision of the CCA, at least 1000 autonomous aircraft would synergistically accompany the F-35A and Next-Generation Air Dominance family of fighter systems. With this approach, the Air Force plans to deploy two CCAs for each of the 200 NGAD platforms, as well as two for each of the 300 F-35s. 

The range of tasks these autonomous companions could carry out is quite diverse – from conducting electronic warfare and undertaking reconnaissance missions to acting as leading scouts to gather intelligence. Furthermore, these CCAs will be armed either with guns or missiles for strikes against enemy targets and may even function as decoys when required. 

The projected 2024 budget for the Air Force sees an approximate allocation of $50 million for Project VENOM, which intends to test autonomous software using F-16 jets. An extra $69 million is aimed at the creation of an experimental team to strategize and develop protocols to integrate CCAs into a squadron unit. 

Photo credit: UK MoD

According to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in November 2023, the fleet of CCAs may likely exceed the current estimate of 1,000 units that have been set for planning purposes. 

Nevertheless, in-depth study and understanding of autonomous flight technology are needed to smoothly integrate it into routine unit operations before any large-scale deployment is attempted. To refine the autonomous software, data from in-flight interaction between pilots and machines will be collected during the Project Venom trials. 

The tests are designed to help the USAF understand how to instruct squadrons on deploying CCAs effectively and minimize potential risks associated with using autonomous drones alongside manned aircraft. 

Photo credit: Pixabay

The affordability of CCAs is also a crucial aspect, with the aim for them to be cost-effective enough to be ‘attributable,’ thereby allowing possible losses during battle. As per Kendall, the cost of a CCA could be 25 – 33% of an F-35, translating into a range of $20-27 million. 

This cost-effectiveness could facilitate riskier missions for CCAs, reducing jeopardy for human pilots. However, the proposition hasn’t received an enthusiastic response from the US Congress, particularly regarding funding. 

In response to this, the USAF is exploring alternate channels to commence work, keeping in view the goal of fielding by 2028. According to Kendall, “prospective contractors” are on board to undertake some preliminary work even before the full program gets the green light.

XQ-58A Valkyrie

The US Air Force [USAF] is pioneering several autonomous wingman programs, one of which includes Project VENOM. Another notable project driven by artificial intelligence [AI] is the USAF’s autonomous craft, the XQ-58A Valkyrie. 

This cutting-edge technology is at the heart of the US military’s effort to unlock the benefits of autonomous weaponry. While this new technology holds immense promise, it also raises significant ethical issues concerning how much authority should be delegated to a lethal weapon. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Air Force sees the Valkyrie, a drone of the future, as a potent supplement to its existing fleet of fighter aircraft. It will function as an efficient robotic wingman during combat, capable of recognizing, evaluating, and alerting human pilots to potential threats. The final decision for lethal action, however, remains with the human controller. 

There is growing concern among military strategists regarding a possible large-scale conflict with China, particularly a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Despite significant investments in current Air Force infrastructure and weaponry, its efficacy in such a situation is under debate. 

The reasoning behind this is that China has stationed over a thousand anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles along its coastlines and on man-made islands in the South China Sea. These installations considerably hinder the US’s response capabilities to an invasion of Taiwan, risking significant land and air losses. 

Consider the F-35 fighter jet, coming with a hefty price tag of $80 million per unit. As the number of these high-cost combat aircraft reduces after years of production, the USAF sees its fleet become both older and smaller than ever before. 

This is the gap that AI-powered drones, or cooperative combat aircraft, aim to fill. Some in the Air Force have monikered the program as “affordable mass”, considering the plans to manufacture 1,000 to 2,000 of these drones at a cost as low as $3 million each, which is just a fraction of the cost of an advanced fighter jet. 

These robotic aircraft will serve a myriad of specialized roles. Some will be employed in attack swarms, others will be dedicated to surveillance or supply missions, while some will act as “loyal wingmen” to a human pilot.

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