AI-driven concepts emerge as US Air Force mulls options

Three distinct classes of AI-driven aircraft have emerged as options to fly alongside current and future US Air Force fighters. Candidates range from expandable to exquisite systems, with a potential mid-tier of detachable aircraft that take advantage of automotive-inspired modular design features.

All of these concepts were on display in the exhibit hall at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber ​​Conference, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Air Force’s founding as an independent branch of the Air Force. ‘army.

  • Exquisite, Attritable, and Consumable Options Featured
  • “Equip” more abilities

On the high end, Northrop Grumman’s booth featured a concept model of the SG-101, the latest example in the company’s long line of advanced flying wing aircraft. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, showed Skunk Works’ concept for the Speed ​​Racer, a low-cost unmanned aircraft system (UAS) that will soon be paired with F-35s for a demonstration called Project Carrera.

For the first time, executives from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) and Kratos spoke about their competing and similar proposals for a mid-layer of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s vision on the so-called Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) (see page 22). Gambit from GA-ASI and Demigorgon from Kratos would be families of UAS in the 10,000 books. class that share a common chassis – consisting of keel, landing gear, power systems, mission computer and avionics – but incorporate different airframes, wings, intakes, engines and payloads depending on the mission.

Boeing’s display stand at the Air Force event featured images of the Australian-made MQ-28 Ghost Bat UAS. Instead of swapping airframes and engines for different missions, the MQ-28 would be fitted with different nose-mounted radomes to accommodate different payloads. Finally, Blue Force Technologies, a small company based in North Carolina, showed for the first time a model of the UAS Fury, which the Air Force is building to demonstrate an adversary aerial platform. driven by artificial intelligence (AI). The Fury also offers a removable nose section to accommodate different payloads.

All these concepts are announced while the Air Force leaders are still far from precisely describing what they are looking for in one or more types of CCA. Although the Air Force is preparing to launch a record-breaking program for CCA in the fiscal year 2024 budget, department heads are unsure what capabilities for an AI-driven CCA would be possible at the moment. desired entry into service date in the early 2030s or how many such aircraft would be needed globally or by squadron.

Amid this uncertainty, General Mark Kelly, head of the Air Combat Command (ACC), advises industry officials to adopt a design philosophy that maximizes flexibility.

“If I was doing a clean sheet design, I’d be looking for something you can iterate on,” Kelly told reporters at the conference.

Gambit drone sketch
GA-ASI has released sketches of a family of 10,000lb-class Gambit UASs, with mission-specific variants sharing a “base” hardware and avionics architecture. Credit: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

The Air Force would like a CCA that can fly X-band radar one day and, say, a jammer the next, Kelly said. The aircraft should also be able to “equip itself” with more capabilities in terms of payload capacity and range.

“I wouldn’t lock myself into a sensor that can’t do anything else or a jammer that can’t do anything else,” Kelly said. “If we lock ourselves into [requirements that] ‘it has to be this big, it has to go this far, it has to do these jobs, it has to be at this price’ and run to the finish line, we might find out we’re wrong, and we’ll do half -turn and go back and start again.

Instead, the Air Force prefers an iterative approach to CCA development, valuing aircraft designs that can adapt as the capabilities of AI-driven systems are understood, even as they continue to evolve. evolve rapidly.

Air Force leaders are still developing a business case for the CCA program, and they have not decided whether the requirement will require a single aircraft type or a family of multiple aircraft.

“It’s something we have to figure out over time,” Andrew Hunter, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters at the conference.

In the meantime, the Air Force also understands that the non-technical barriers to fielding a CCA must be addressed, such as performing tasks as part of a team with crewed fighters. The Air Force has operated a fleet of GA-ASI MQ-9A and Northrop RQ-4B UAS for decades, but largely in a standalone role. On the other hand, CCA would be directly related to crewed fighters and bombers in combat.

“I think it’s also fair to say that the history of this effort shows that it takes strong leadership support to overcome the cultural barriers that sometimes exist when it comes to unmanned aircraft. crew,” Hunter said.

ACC plans to address cultural issues by first introducing AI-piloted aircraft as adversary air platforms (ADAIR). In March 2021, Blue Force Technologies was selected to build four Fury aircraft for the ADAIR-Unmanned Experimental (ADAIR-UX) demonstration, also known as the Bandit program. If the demonstration is successful, a follow-up production program is possible.

The goal of the ADAIR-UX program is to make Air Force pilots comfortable operating alongside AI-piloted aircraft in the same airspace, in a relatively safe environment. The adversary air mission at Nellis AFB, Nevada, for example, is carried out in very restricted airspace, with aircraft acting as the “target” for beyond-visual-range interceptions in designated blocks of airspace. As human pilots become more comfortable with the behavior and capabilities of the AI-driven UAS, they may be able to begin conducting combat training missions as pilots. collaborative teams.

Blue Force Technologies, which pitched the ADAIR-UX concept to ACC as part of a small business innovation research project, plans to compete for the production program, but will likely face competition from much larger companies.

Michael Atwood, GA-ASI’s technical director of advanced programs, told Aviation Week at the conference that his company was “extremely interested” in competing for the ADAIR-UX production order with a new variant of the Gambit family of aircraft. UAS. Similarly, Steve Fendley, president of Kratos’ unmanned systems division, told Aviation Week that his company would offer the approximately 10,000-pound Demigorgon-class UAS for the program.

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