The US Air Force plans for the first batch of Next Generation Air Defense (NGAD) systems to consist of 200 manned fighters and 1,000 high-performance drones that could accompany them, USAF Secretary Frank Kendall said.
Kendall explained that the USAF employs a notional figure for its aircraft fleet that fulfills future sustainment, training, basing needs, along with other factors. The number was revealed during the 2023 Air & Space Forces (AFA) Warfare Symposium on March 7, 2023.
Kendall stressed that the figure is “arbitrary” and consists of two drones for each manned sixth-generation fighter, plus two drones to accompany one of 300 F-35s also considered in the plans.
When asked why only 300 F-35s are considered when the USAF previously said it planned to operate over 1,700 aircraft of the model, Kendall stressed that the figures are “just a starting point”, as quoted by Air & Space Forces magazine.
“We put that on the table as a way to basically structure that around what we think is a reasonable first tranche, reasonable ratio,” Kendall said, as quoted by The War Zone.
Kendall referred to such unmanned aircraft as Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCAs), an official USAF designation for aircraft popularly known as loyal wingmen. The type refers to drones that have similar flight characteristics to manned fighter aircraft and are expected to accompany them in battle while executing orders assigned to them by pilots.
The first step would involve each manned aircraft being assigned one CCA, with their number increased further if the concept is proven, Kendall added.
“I can easily see one platform controlling one CCA doing one mission, whether it be sensing or jamming or something like that,” the commander of USAF Air Combat Command Mark D. Kelly elaborated on Kendall’s points during the event, according to Air & Space Forces magazine.
A second drone capable of performing a different mission would then be added to the system, according to Kelly.
A new kind of air warfare
The idea of loyal wingmen has been in the works for a long time. The most prominent program to develop them – project Skyborg – has been designated as one of four so-called “Vanguard” programs, indicating their priority status.
Skyborg is a sprawling effort to develop software, hardware, user interfaces and other aspects of the future CCA force that would be employed alongside manned jets.
Development of loyal wingmen is also a part of the USAF’s NGAD program, which envisions the sixth-generation fighter jet as a “system of systems” – a collection of manned and unmanned assets that could act as one unit and accomplish more than just a collection of independent aircraft.
Three high-performance drones are currently being tested as a part of the Skyborg program – General Atomics Avenger, Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie, and Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat, although the USAF is also running several parallel programs to develop other drones that could perform the role of loyal wingman.
Other countries that work on their own sixth-generation fighter jet concepts are developing their own loyal wingman drones, for example Airbus has recently revealed several new designs of loyal wingmen (Remote Carriers) for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), while UK’s BAE Systems canceled its Mosquito program in favor of several new designs.