JUST IN: Air Force Planning for 1,000 Uncrewed Aircraft to Support NGAD

By Sean Carberry

AURORA, Colorado — While details on the Next-Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, program are still scarce, the Air Force is moving forward with an initial planning target of 1,000 collaborative combat aircraft to accompany the future fighters and existing F-35s into combat, according to the service’s secretary.

The Air Force arrived at the 1,000 number by assuming two collaborative combat aircraft to accompany each of 200 NGAD and 300 F-35 fighters, said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, adding that the estimate is meant to give planners a “nominal quantity,” and the service is requesting the resources to move the program forward.

“This isn't an inventory objective, but a planning assumption to use for analysis of things such as basing, organizational structures, training and range requirements and sustainment concepts,” he said at the Air & Space Forces Association’s Warfare Symposium.

“The CCAs will complement and enhance the performance of our crewed fighter force structure,” he continued. “They will not impact planned crewed fighter inventory. One way to think of CCAs is as remotely controlled versions of the targeting pods, electronic warfare pods, or weapons now carried under the wings of our crewed aircraft.”

Speaking to reporters at the conference, Kendall stated that the numbers are somewhat arbitrary in terms of the 300 F-35s, 200 NGADs and 1,000 CCAs. It could all change based on what industry and technology can support. Furthermore, the planning numbers of 1,000 CCAs and 200 NGADs is not a determination of how many aircraft will be fielded under the program, but an estimate of "a reasonable first tranche," he added. 

“We don’t want to undershoot, we don’t want to overshoot,” which could result in delays and cost overruns, he added.

“If we ask for too much, we're going to get bogged down trying to get it,” he said. “We need to ask for a reasonable amount that's going to give us operational advantage and not gold plate our requirements, which is one of the ways we've gotten into trouble in the past,” he continued.

“I want to give the staff a reasonable assumption as a basis to begin some planning while we're moving forward with the acquisition program to develop the aircraft and get them into production,” he said.

Kendall described this approach of planning and acquisition as a “new thing. It's a way of operating we haven't actually had any experience with, right, so we've got a lot to learn.”

The fiscal year 2024 budget request will include some provisions to move the program forward and allow for some experimentation in Air Force units, he said.

“We're going to buy some assets that are not the ultimate CCA, but which we can use for a variety of things to develop operational concepts, to develop technology, reduce the risk of the program for the CCAs,” he said. “And also start to think through some things like how we train, what kind of organizational structures we have, et cetera.”

The program will be a full competition, and there are “a lot of candidates” who have been working on the concept based on information the service has released to date, he said.

The aspiration is to field the first tranche of NGAD before the end of the decade. One of the biggest potential sources of delay could be Congress, Kendall said. As a new start, the CCA program will require authorization and funding from Congress.

“It's going to be very hard to get bills out this year,” he said. “I think our committees are generally committed to getting that done.

“But I can foresee some difficulties as we move forward,” he continued. “And I keep pounding that drum because, you know, you can't go fast until you can start. And we can't start until we have the authorizations on the appropriations.”

That is an overall concern for Air Force programs, he noted. The newly announced plan to scrap the KC-Y and KC-Z fuel tanker acquisition programs and move to an NGAD-like tanker program, the Next-Generation Air-Refueling System, will also require congressional authorization and funding.

Kendall said there would be 20 “new or enhanced” efforts in the upcoming 2024 budget request. They cover the gamut of operational imperatives, he said. Many are classified, and 12 will require congressional approvals as new starts.

“I am concerned about the polarization this year, and how that's going to affect how things ultimately come out,” he said.


Topics: Air Force News

Comments (1)

Re: Air Force Planning for 1,000 Uncrewed Aircraft to Support NGAD

Inquiring minds want to know: How much fuel a "retired" B-2 can carry and deliver?

Everett Puterbaugh at 4:20 PM
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