Top Air Force Officer Doubles Down On Aerial Combat Drones With Short Life Spans

The U.S. Air Force’s top officer has reiterated the need for the Collaborative Combat Aircraft drone program to focus on designs that are not meant to last for thousands of flight hours and that can be acquired quickly in iterative cycles. He also argued for a broader fundamental rethinking of how his service does business to make good on bets, including on crewed-uncrewed teaming, that will be critical to ensure the service can fight and win in the future, especially in the face of tightening budgets.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin talked about the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program and other topics during a fireside chat the Air & Space Forces Association hosted earlier today. CCA is one of the Air Force’s top priorities and is part of the larger Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative. NGAD also includes the development of a new sixth-generation stealth combat jet and a host of other subprograms.

The Air Force’s current plan is to acquire hundreds, if not thousands of CCA drones through a series of iterative development cycles, or increments. The service currently expects to buy around 100 CCAs in the program’s initial Increment 1, where designs from Anduril and General Atomics are now facing off. The uncrewed aircraft are expected to have a high degree of autonomy, but also work closely with crewed aircraft, including the future NGAD combat jets, particularly in air-to-air combat missions, at least to begin with. 

A rendering of General Atomics’ Increment 1 CCA design. GA-ASI

We’re “re-looking at the way that we develop capabilities,” Gen. Allvin said today, adding that one should “look no further than Collaborative Combat Aircraft.”

“I don’t want a set of Collaborative Combat Aircraft that’s gonna last for 25 to 30 years, because what comes with that?” the Air Force Chief of Staff declared. “Well, now it’s going on 25 to 30 years, and it’s got to do everything but make me toast in the morning.”

“Okay, if it’s got to do that, it’s going to be expensive. Okay, if it’s going to be expensive, then we can only buy a few of them. Okay, if we can only buy a few, then it’s got to do [more] – and we get into that spiral,” he added. “‘Built to last’ is a tremendous 20th Century overstatement. The assumption was whatever you had was relevant as long as it lasted. I’m not sure that’s relevant anymore.”

“So that’s why we aren’t building a sustainment structure [for CCAs],” Allvin explained. After 10 years, advances in “technology will make it so that CCA won’t be as relevant, but it might be adaptable. And that’s why we’re building in the modularity and adaptability.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin. USAF

For CCA, even 10 years could turn out to be an above-average service life. The U.S. Navy, which has its own CCA program that is heavily intertwined with the Air Force’s effort, has also floated the idea of using the drones as missiles or training targets after just a few dozen missions. The Air Force is clearly targeting well above that threshold currently, but the idea of breaking the standard aircraft life span mold with CCA is glaring. 

Allvin’s comments align with what the Air Force has said previously about its CCA ambitions, but also point to the service still very much figuring its way through how to realize those goals.

Even now knowing the designs competing in CCA’s Increment 1, details about the Air Force’s actual requirements for the drones remain nebulous. These requirements are also expected to change, at least to some degree, from one increment to the next. In February, Air Force officials said they were still in the process of defining the parameters for Increment 2, work on which is expected to kick off in the 2025 Fiscal Year. 

There also continue to be significant questions about how much the CCA drones will cost to acquire and operate, and how that will impact the service’s ability to field them rapidly in large volumes. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has said in the past that he expects the initial run of CCAs to have unit costs between one-quarter and one-third of the price of a single F-35 stealth fighter. Based on publicly available information, this would put the price tag of each Increment 1 CCA at between around $20.5 and $27.5 million.

The Air Force has made clear that it sees CCA drones as key to acquiring the “affordable mass” it will need to succeed in future conflicts, especially large-scale fights against near-peer competitors like China. More recently, the service has also begun to talk about the need to accelerate the development and acquisition cycles, or “speed-to-ramp,” to help acquire and field that “mass” in a timely and cost-effective manner. You can read more about these intertwined concepts and how they apply to the CCA program in more detail here.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin. USAF

Gen. Allvin today stressed that all of this only looks set to become more significant given the service’s budget outlook, at least in the near term. 

“You’ve got a financial tsunami bearing down, cost gaps, inflation, maybe a double digit pay raise. You gotta find 40 or 50 billion dollars more to do [the] Sentinel [intercontinetal ballistic missile program]. How is the Air Force way of war gonna have to change?” Air & Space Forces Magazine‘s John Tirpak asked Allvin today. “Secretary [Kendall] has said there are really hard choices come in the [Fiscal Year] 26 budget. You’re building that budget now. Do you have to change the way we’ve done things for the last 80 years? Do you withdraw from an inside force to a standoff force? Can you do NGAD? Give us an idea of how things are going to have to change to comport with the resource situation.”

“We do have to ask the fundamental question, what does an effective Air Force look like in the future?” Allvin said in response, adding that the service’s Fiscal Year 2026 budget looks set to be be “very, very thin across the board.”

Earlier this year, the Department of Defense as a whole submitted a relaively flat budget request for the upcoming 2025 Fiscal Year, in large part due to spending caps imposed by the 2023 Fiscal Responsibiltiy Act. Memebers of Congress are already considering ways to increase defense spending, but how and when remains to be seen.

“So what are the things we are taking bets on?” Allvin continued. “One of the big bets we’re taking was on human-machine teaming. I think that’s a safe bet.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin. USAF

The Air Force Chief of Staff heavily emphasized the CCA program as an example of the human-machine teaming capabilities the service is pushing to acquire.

There has been some suggestion that Allvin’s comments today may call the future of NGAD into question. It is certainly possible that the service could scale back its ambitions in this regard to varying degrees due to funding constraints. However, the Air Force’s 2025 Fiscal Year budget request points to a heavy continued focus on the initiative and its various subcomponents, including CCA, supported by cuts elsewhere. 

As already noted, the CCA program’s a core goals center on increasing the Air Force’s air combat capabilities and capacity in a cost-effective and relatively rapid manner. This is being driven heavily by concerns that buying more and more advanced, but also expensive exquisite platforms will functionally backrupt the service. Gen. Allvin highlighted this all just today in talking about the pitfalls he wants to avoid in the development, acquistion, and fielding of these drones.

Still, “It’s going to be a challenging next couple of years,” he said.

Altogether, the Air Force looks to still intend to bet big on programs like CCA to keep the tough budget choices it has to make to a minimum, while still working to acquire the capabilities it sees as essential to winning future fights.

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