Construction Of First Collaborative Combat Aircraft Drone Has Begun At General Atomics

General Atomics is now building its first drone for the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft program and says it is using components originally made for the MQ-9 Reaper to help speed up that work. The company is currently facing off against Anduril and its Fury design in CCA’s initial phase, but there are growing inklings about the possibility of both types entering service as a complementary team.

Both firms say they are making headway, but are also encountering significant challenges, especially when it comes to autonomy, in their work on their respective drones. General Atomics says it is already looking ahead toward an entire next generation of uncrewed aerial systems, which is embedded in the work it is doing under the LongShot air-launched weapons carrier program.

Mike Atwood, Vice President of Advanced Aircraft Programs at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI), and Diem Salmon, Vice President of Air Dominance and Strike at Anduril, spoke at length about the CCA program in a new edition of The Merge podcast released over the weekend, which is worth listening to in full.

The full episode of The Merge featuring General Atomics’ Mike Atwood and Anduril’s Diem Salmon can be found below.

The Air Force announced in April that the two companies had been chosen to move forward in the CCA’s program’s first phase, also known as Increment One. A number of other efforts, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program, are feeding directly into CCA.

A rendering for Anduril’s CCA design, the Fury. Anduril An artist’s conception of the CCA variant of the Fury drone. Anduril

The Air Force’s current plan is to acquire 100 CCAs under Increment One, with the expectation that these highly autonomous drones will work closely together with crewed combat jets, especially stealthy fifth and eventually sixth-generation types, with a focus on air-to-air missions, at least initially. The program is already working toward kicking off Increment Two and the ultimate goal is to acquire and field 1,000 CCAs, if not many more. The complete future CCA fleet could consist of multiple distinct designs with varying performance and other capabilities. Finding ways to accelerate development timetables, as well as rapidly ramp up large-scale production of finalized designs, are seen as essential to meeting these objectives.

Production progress, challenges

“The first [General Atomics] CCA is in assembly right now as we speak,” GA-ASI’s Atwood said on the recent episode of The Merge podcast. “So, you know, the speed at which you get [a] contract award, and it’s announced, to the speed of them getting an airplane, is well inside 24 months, if not inside one year.”

Atwood highlighted General Atomics’ decades of experience not only developing, but also producing other drones, including the now iconic MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper families, as helping to give the company a jump-start on CCA. He also disclosed a direct connection between the CCA design and the MQ-9 for what appears to be the first time.

“We have basically a hot production line where I can take an MQ-9 out and put a Collaborative Combat Aircraft in,” according to Atwood. “We were able to essentially take Reaper parts out of stock rooms and build the first [CCA] aircraft.”

Members of General Atomics and the Dutch Armed forces stand in front of an MQ-9 Reaper at the company’s plant in Poway, California. GA-ASI

General Atomics’ CCA design is primarily based on the XQ-67 drone, which the company developed under the Air Force’s separate and still very secretive Off-Board Sensing Station (OBSS) program. You can read more about the XQ-67, which The War Zone was first to report on, and the OBSS program here.

There are also indications that GA-ASI’s XQ-67, and its CCA design by extension, are leveraging work on the company’s highly modular Gambit family of uncrewed aircraft. The Gambit concept is centered on a common core chassis with a tricycle landing gear, that also includes an AI ‘brain,’ flight control system, and mission computer, onto which very different airframe configurations can be mated with relative ease.

Anduril’s Salmon did not provide specific details about her company’s progress on its first CCA prototype, but said a key goal remained on getting to a first flight. The Anduril entry is a design called Fury, which an aviation firm called Blue Force Technologies first started development on in the late 2010s.

Salmon did note that “having an in-house composite shop [is] hugely beneficial,” an apparent reference to Anduril’s acquisition of Blue Force Technologies last year, which also included its production facilities. Prior to that, Blue Force Technologies specialized in rapid prototyping and other advanced concept design services, with a particular focus on carbon fiber composite manufacturing. You can read more about both companies in relation to the broader history of Fury’s development in an exhaustive feature that took The War Zone some two and half years to complete here.

It’s worth noting here that the offerings from General Atomics and Anduril are very different in form and function. Fury is objectively the more high-performance-focused design, something that came up and that Atwood did not dispute while speaking on The Merge.

In speaking with The Merge’s Mike Benitez, Atwood and Salmon were broadly positive about the progress their respective companies have been making on CCA, but also cited challenges, as well as important lessons already learned.

“Composites are inherently expensive … they’re really for high-performance applications where you need certain strength and stiffness,” General Atomics’ Atwood noted in talking about production issues. “When you look at Collaborative Combat Aircraft … we’re actually falling back on more metallic – what we call hybrid structures, metal frames with composite skins.”

“I think there are automated tape laying [capabilities] where you can have a big fancy robot arm put down your carbon fiber in a tool,” he added. “So there are specific applications, like wings structures, where it buys its way on.”

Requirements questions

There have already been broader questions and concerns about the performance and capabilities that the Air Force is looking for in its initial tranche of CCAs, and the costs and production complexities that go along with all that. Public details about the Increment One CCA requirements remain limited, but it has already emerged that they will have higher performance than was broadly anticipated, which is expected to come at the cost of range.

The cost of a single CCA drone is also expected to be between one-third and one-quarter of the unit price of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or around $20.5 and $27.5 million based on publicly available information. This is at the very high end of the original cost projections.

“I think the challenge was, you kind of hit on it, was the cost… We [the industry] started with an X-47, an X-45,” according to Atwood, referring to advanced uncrewed combat air vehicle (UCAV) designs from Northrop Grumman and Boeing, respectively. “And we’re like, wow, that doesn’t meet ‘many-on-many’ and [affordable] mass, and it was a little ahead of its time on autonomy. “

Atwood’s comment here is particularly interesting in light of the almost total disappearance of U.S. military UCAV concepts, at least publicly, despite significant progress in their development during the 2000s and early 2010s. This was the subject of the first major feature to appear on The War Zone.

“So we swung the pendulum over to the XQ-58 Valkyrie, the Kratos product, and that was a little too small,” he continued. “In the middle of that, we’ve kind of honed in on this size class. It is more utilitarian. And I think the challenge has been finding the right balance of cost, survivability, and mission system capability … The challenge was a system level optimization of all of those attributes, but it took six years [for the Air Force] to find that optimum point.”

The Air Force, along with other branches of the U.S. military and DARPA, have engaged in a number of other advanced drone and autonomous technology projects over the past six years. The Air Force’s Skyborg project, which used XQ-58s and General Atomics’ stealthy Avenger drones, among other platforms, to explore new advanced AI-driven autonomous capabilities, is a prime example. There is also the aforementioned ACE effort, which is still ongoing in parallel to CCA.

The need for more autonomy

Questions about autonomous capabilities, and trust therein, continue to be major factors for the CCA program no matter how fast General Atomics or Anduril can develop and produce the drones they will be integrated onto. GA-ASI’s Atwood talked about fundamental issues about human-in-the-loop control over autonomous platforms and how this has shown a need for operators to cede more control to the machines under their supervision.

“We started with [the Air Force’s] Air Combat Command with tablets… There was this idea that they wanted to have this discreet control,” General Atomics’ Atwood said. “I got to fly in one of these jets with a tablet. And it was really hard to fly the airplane, let alone the weapon system of my primary airplane, and spatially and temporally think about this other thing.”

An example of a tablet General Atomics has used in crewed-uncrewed teaming testing in the past. General Atomics

“We [have] got to make the collaborative part of the aircraft essentially sense or know the intent of what the fighter is trying to do,” he continued. “If he’s trying to ingress, if he’s trying to egress, if he’s trying to shoot, if he’s trying to jam, if he’s trying to be in EMCON [an emissions controlled state], [the drone has to] be an organic extension of whatever that function is that they’re trying to do without burdening the pilot.”

These are among the exact issues that the Air Force is already working to address in cooperation with DARPA through the aforementioned ACE project using a highly modified F-16 fighter called the X-62A Variable Stability In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft (VISTA), as you can read more about here. The service is also looking to further explore issues that may come with increased autonomy in crewed-uncrewed contexts through testing with a pocket fleet of less extensively modified F-16s as part of Project Viper Experimentation and Next-Gen Operations Mode (VENOM). Using a two-seat combat jet in the drone controller role could also help with task saturation.

“We just want to be his [the pilot of the fighter’s] sensor, but 60 miles forward. We want to be his weapon, but twice as far [away]… and it just has to be organic, that the triangles and diamonds on his screen are just better and he doesn’t even have to worry about gas, and weapons, and range, and turn rate, and altitude deconfliction,” Atwood added. “We’re really focused on a lot of closed-loop self-aware cognitive autonomy, because when we did it simply [using more discreet control] and we did the training, it didn’t work.”

At the same time, any reduction in human interaction only increases the need for trust in those autonomous systems. The ability to not only test, but train and retrain autonomy algorithms in entirely digital environments, and do so very rapidly, has been extremely beneficial already for increasing confidence in these capabilities. At the same time, there still are limits to what can be done without real flight testing.

“What we’re seeing now are kill chains where we’re willing culturally to take that ROE [the rules of engagement] and put it in the hands of a machine, which I think is the transformation in autonomy,” Atwood explained. “It’s about trust in autonomy. That’s this tipping point.”

“I think now it’s time to get off the NTTR, the Nevada Test and Training Range, and get this thing down range,” Atwood added. “We need some combat evaluations to figure out almost from a policy or a cultural standpoint, do we trust it?”

“You just have to fly it… you just gotta get it out there. … People need to have experience interacting with it,” Anduril’s Salmon agreed. “And that’s how you build trust and I don’t know if you’re gonna get around that. So I think part of this is really just training and as much fielding and deployment as possible to get people used to it.”

Complementing, not competing?

General Atomics’ Atwood said during The Merge podcast that he did not necessarily see his company’s design as being a competitor to Anduril’s Fury, and that the two could well be complimentary. This, in turn, could point to the possibility of the Air Force deciding to be examples of both to operate as a team.

It’s interesting to note here that the OBSS program, which has led to the General Atomics CCA design, has an even more secretive, higher-performance, and armed cousin called the Off-Board Weapon Station. The War Zone has highlighted in the past how a hunter-killer OBSS/OBWS team would make good sense. This, in turn, raises the question of whether the two current CCA drones that are ostensibly competing now could be employed in a similarly cooperative fashion.

The XQ-67 during its first flight. Courtesy photo via USAF The XQ-67A drone seen during its first flight. Courtesy photo via USAF

“I feel that both Anduril and GA [General Atomics] are well poised to bring a world-class team to deliver something relevant on a relevant timescale,” Atwood said.

Increment One is also only the beginning of what is expected to be a larger CCA program. The Air Force has made clear that subsequent increments will be open to new proposals and new designs. General Atomics and Anduril are just some of the dozens of companies that the service has already brought together in a consortium to support this larger effort.

On top of all that, the Air Force already has formal agreements with the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps to collaborate on developments related to CCA, especially control architectures. A key goal here is for all three services to be able to be able to seamlessly exchange control of CCA-like drones back and forth during future operations. The service is also looking to expand cooperation on CCA, or tangential efforts, to include foreign allies and partners. The Air Force is also utilizing at least one Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat drone, a design originally developed for the Royal Australian Air Force, to support various research and development and test evaluation efforts.

A depiction of a US Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighter flying together with a Royal Australian Air Force MQ-28 Ghost Bat. USAF A US Air Force image depicting an MQ-28 Ghost Bat flying together with an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. USAF

Eyes toward the future

CCA is also not the only advanced aircraft program ongoing within the U.S. military that we know about and other work is being done in the classified realm. This includes designs that are intended to be both more and less capable than CCAs.

“There is a next generation of UAS [uncrewed aerial systems] that is under work that is much much more survivable, much more autonomous, much more cognitive,” Atwood said. “It lives inside the DARPA LongShot program… it lives inside some stuff that Anduril is working on in the restricted space. … We can’t talk too much turkey on it, but it’s essentially taking all the principles that we’ve talked about today to I think an extreme – affordability, survivability, and cognitive autonomy – and it’s exciting.”

General Atomics is the prime contractor on DARPA’s LongShot program, which is exploring the concept of an uncrewed aircraft capable of firing air-to-air missiles that fighters and/or bombers could launch in mid-air, as you can read more about here.

A rendering depicting F-15 combat jets launching LongShot drones, which then fire their own air-to-air missiles. GA-ASI A rendering of General Atomics LongShot drones being launched by F-15-series fighters and firing missiles. GA-ASI

At the same time, the Air Force is looking at serious budget constraints starting in Fiscal Year 2026, which are already prompting the service to take hard looks at its future modernization plans. Secretary Kendal and other senior officials have warned that even top-priority efforts like the flagship Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative could see significant cuts. CCA is part of the larger NGAD effort. At the same time, Air Force leadership has consistently doubled down on the critical importance of the CCA program to ensure its ability to fight and win future conflicts, especially potential high-end fights such as one in the Pacific against China.

In her final comments on The Merge’s recent podcast, Anduril’s Salmon also pointed to a need for a broader culture shift in how the Air Force and the rest of the U.S. military do business, especially when it comes to uncrewed platforms and autonomy. The Pentagon’s Replicator initiative, which aims to help put thousands of new and relatively cheap uncrewed capabilities with high degrees of autonomy into the hands of U.S. forces within the next two years or so, is one example of how the Department of Defense itself is looking to make this more fundamental change.

“I think even if you have three to five new programs that are somehow embracing autonomous vehicles in any domain… we should consider that a win. If we see programs that are standing up and trying to field [capabilities] in five years instead of 10 we should see that as a win,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to darken the skies with robots in the next five years, but I think if we can just start accelerating some of the change and adoption of these things, that will be great.”

Altogether, what exactly the final product that comes out of CCA’s Increment One looks like in the end and what its actual autonomous and other capabilities might be remains to be seen. At the same time, the program continues to look set to have transformational and potentially game-changing impacts on how the Air Force fights and how it acquires new aircraft, crewed or uncrewed, going forward.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.