BREAKING: Robo-Jets Part of Mix for Air Force TacAir Study

By Stew Magnuson

Boeing illustration

Robotic fighter jets — now in their experimental phase — will be part of an upcoming study to determine the right numbers and mix of Air Force tactical aircraft, the service’s Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr., said Feb. 25.

Brown on Feb. 17 announced that he wanted a tactical air study to determine the right mix of new and legacy tactical aircraft the service will need in the future. As this study will be looking 10 to 15 years in the future, it will have to consider that autonomous fighter jets — serving as robotic wingmen to manned aircraft — might then be part of the mix, he said.

“One of the conversations we are having is, what does a fighter squadron look like in the future?” he told reporters in a virtual press conference. How many manned and how many unmanned platforms should be part of a squadron? he asked.

“I don’t know that we have an answer right now, but I think it’s an area we have to look at as part of this study,” he said.

Brown said he had spoken this week during the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Warfare Symposium to industry members working on autonomous jets about the progress they have been making.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Skyborg program is developing the aircraft.

“They’re making pretty good strides,” he said of the contractors providing the jets.

Proponents of the concept say robo-jets can serve to boost the numbers of aircraft deployed against adversaries, causing them multiple “dilemmas.” They could also carry weapons, serve as sensor platforms, or decoys.

Brown said there was a big cultural shift in the Air Force when remotely piloted aircraft were introduced into the force, and robotic wingman would be an adjustment as well, but maybe not as dramatic.

“There will be another cultural shift, I think, but maybe to a lesser extent because we have confidence in unmanned platforms,” he said. “I think we can do this. It's just a matter of how do we do it, and how we do it right,” he said.

Meanwhile, Brown was asked about his confidence in the F-35A joint strike fighter and the assertion of critics that it was a “failed program.”

The F-35 is the “cornerstone” of what the Air Force will accomplish in the future, he said. The TacAir Study will look at the F-35, F-16, F-22, A-10 and F-15E.

“I want to be able to understand — as I start trying to make decisions — what do you want to look like as an Air Force 15 years from now, with the F-35 as a cornerstone of our capability?” he said.

Brown in his Feb. 17 press conference hinted at a changing role for the aircraft, describing it as an expensive sports car.

“You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our ‘high end’ [ jet fighter]; we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight,” he said.

The planned buy of 1,763 F-35s has so far not changed, he said. But he has asked his team to “provide me options on how to take a look at this because I want to make sure we have the right capability and that includes continuing to buy the 1,763 like we've already outlined.”

“We also have to take a look at it to make sure we have the capabilities we need with Block 4, but also is it affordable? And I know we're working with [prime contractor] Lockheed Martin and others to ensure we do that because there are some cost pressures as well,” he said.

The Air Force is currently buying 48 to 60 joint strike fighters per year, which means it would not reach the 1,763 goal until the mid-2040s.

Brown said there is no big spike of purchases in the near future, but part of the study’s purpose will be to help him “articulate the fact that to get there faster, we're going to have to have a spike,” he said.

“That’s my job — to make this case,” he said.

Topics: Unmanned Air Vehicles

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