AFA NEWS: ‘Continuous Competition’ Will Drive CCA Platform Selection

By Laura Heckmann

Lockheed Martin concept

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — The Collaborative Combat Aircraft program is the Air Force’s effort to develop autonomous drones that will operate in conjunction with manned aircraft, and top Air Force officials said industry will drive what the platforms look like.

The Air Force envisions an initial tranche of 1,000 collaborative combat aircraft, or CCA, that can perform surveillance, launch weapons, conduct electronic warfare or carry out other functions in support of F-35s, F-15EXs and future sixth-generation aircraft. The program will be built on a foundation of autonomy standards and architecture that is ultimately an agile approach, allowing industry to build on it, Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, told reporters at the Air and Spaces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference Sept. 13.

“Industry can build on it with what I call their software ‘special sauce,’” White said. “Their version of autonomy.”

Maj. Gen. Evan Dertien, commander of the Air Force Test Center, said the service is approaching the CCA program with overall competition in mind.

“So, we're not pushing ourselves to a single vendor, in really any area for that matter. We've kept continuous competition across the mission systems, across the autonomy space, as well as across the air vehicle space,” he said.

Dertien said look no further than the conference exhibit floor to see the variation in vehicle options. “And so, the beauty of it is you have this really broad spectrum,” he said.

White said the program has been working with industry “very closely for a very long time.”

“And so, I won't go into details of exactly where we are on that journey, but I can tell you that we have been at this for quite a while,” he said. “We hesitate right now to get very specific, but the focus is the fact that … we have very, very closely aligned with industry on this for a while.”

Another advantage of continuous competition is an endless selection of vehicles that have already been funded inside the science-and-technology community, he said. “So rarely does anybody have to go off into designing something brand new because they kind of all already have their own thing.”

As the Air Force explores what CCA can bring to the fight, “we’re going to find places for these [variants],” he said. “And the question is, is the variant we have — is that going to work, or will we need another variant? But the one thing that will be constant is we will have that foundational autonomy that's going to help us steer into that.”

Foundational architecture and standards for autonomy are “critically important,” White said.

Having an established architecture means that as technology progresses, the program can continuously develop products based on emerging technologies, Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, said.

White added the service also needs testing grounds and a manned platform to be able to test algorithm development for autonomy that will support the CCA program.

What they’re doing is not new, however, he added. Programs such as VENOM and Skyborg have positioned the department for working with autonomy, he said. “We’re not starting from ground zero.”

Dirtien said VENOM provides “multiple aircraft we can tie in with the sensors, but more importantly, it helps set the foundation … to make sure we have a test range ready to develop CCAs and autonomy. I need the people that [have] the familiarity with it. I need a test range that can support autonomy with the rule sets and all the safety procedures. So what VENOM is going to really help us do is set up that autonomy kind of testing ground to be able to develop future systems.”

The program may not be starting from scratch, but there's still much work to be done. The panel didn’t give specifics on timelines for the CCA program, but reiterated that the continuous competition piece is “absolutely key” and “making sure alignment of that strategy and how we deal with industry continues on that right path and getting acquisition strategies, the environment, set up exactly the way we want.”

White said the program is “very rigid” regarding timelines. He said he could not go into details “for obvious reasons, but we know exactly what it is we want to do and when we need to do it, and how that’s going to inform the way forward.”

Earlier in the week, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics Andrew Hunter told reporters the service is moving ahead with the CCA program using existing authorities, but Congress needs to pass a 2024 budget to prevent delays in the program.

“We are actively working with industry on a regular basis to achieve the objectives on the CCA program,” Hunter said.

“We can move forward and are moving forward on the program that we already had instantiated,” he added. “The thing about getting the ’24 budget is we will get significantly more funding to carry out the effort.

“So, we do still need the fiscal year ’24 budget, because it's a substantial uptick in resources for the effort and we will be delayed in terms of our ability to move forward at the pace that we would like if we don't get that ’24 budget request,” he said.


Topics: Air Power

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