WASHINGTON — The F-35 and F-15EX fighter jets could get drone wingmen in the coming years, the U.S. Air Force’s top acquisition official revealed to Defense News.

The service is exploring ways to team Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and Boeing’s new F-15EX with the XQ-58 Valkyrie drone — a low-cost attritable fighter made by Kratos Defense — or similar unmanned platforms. Attritable means that an asset is reusable, but inexpensive enough that the service can afford to lose it in battle.

The Air Force is in discussions with Boeing and Lockheed on the prospect, and the Air Force Research Laboratory is working on the technology, Will Roper said May 21 in an exclusive interview.

“I’m very passionate about doing it, and the F-35 has a wonderful opportunity to do this as part of Block 4,” Roper said, referring to the F-35’s upcoming upgrade program. “We might also have an opportunity to do this as part of F-15EX.”

Roper told lawmakers this month that Valkyrie would transition to a prototype program known as Skyborg, where the drone will be outfitted with new sensors and payloads and will be networked to manned fighter jets. In March, he characterized Skyborg as an artificial intelligence wingman that would train and learn alongside pilots, or possibly be incorporated into a manned fighter cockpit to act as an assistant to the pilot like R2-D2 in the “Star Wars” films.

But until now, the Air Force had not identified the platforms are under consideration to be equipped with Skyborg or teamed with the XQ-58 Valkyrie.

The Valkyrie, which flew its first test flight at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, on March 5, was designed to perform and maneuver like a fighter jet. It can fly at high subsonic speeds, takeoff without a runway, and, according to Kratos, meet or exceed the Air Force’s requirement for a 1,500-nautical-mile range with a 500-pound payload.

When produced in volume, Roper predicted that they will cost “a couple million bucks” each — not cheap, but inexpensive compared to the F-35A and F-15EX, which are expected to cost about $80 million per jet over the same time frame.

The Air Force is also assessing whether other unmanned aerial systems would complement the Skyborg program. A March request for information describes “a modular, fighter-like aircraft” that is autonomous and attritable, with open systems that allow it to be updated with new AI software or new hardware. Desired characteristics include the ability to detect and avoid obstacles and bad weather, and to takeoff and land autonomously.

According to the solicitation, an “autonomous airborne system experimental campaign” could occur in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, with the hope of having an aircraft ready by 2023.

Roper said teaming fighters with drones could “open up the door for an entirely different way to do aerial combat.” For example, take a typical four-aircraft formation and replace it with an F-15EX and three Valkyries.

“We can take risk with some systems to keep others safer,” Roper said. “We can separate the sensor and the shooter. Right now they’re collocated on a single platform with a person in it. In the future, we can separate them out, put sensors ahead of shooters, put our manned systems behind the unmanned. There’s a whole playbook.”

For the F-35, the pathway to incorporating Skyborg would involve writing software — similar to an iPhone application —that could be installed on the jet during its Block 4 modernization phase in the early 2020s.

Starting in 2023, F-35s rolling off the production line will be outfitted with improved processors, more memory capacity and new, advanced displays in the cockpit — a suite of changes that the F-35 program office calls “tech refresh 3.” Undergirding those upgrades is a transition to an open mission system architecture owned by the government, which will allow the services to create and upload custom software apps, F-35 program head Vice Adm. Mat Winter told reporters this month.

In a statement, Lockheed spokesman Mike Friedman said the F-35 is "ideally suited" for manned-unmanned teaming applications like Skyborg.

“Unlike 4th generation aircraft, the F-35 is a force multiplier able to share its operational picture with ground, sea and air assets in the battlespace,” Friedman said. “Lockheed Martin has extensive experience in manned/unmanned teaming and are working closely with our customers to develop and field this critical capability. Any timing for integration would be determined by our customers through the Continuous Capability, Development and Delivery (C2D2) framework for Follow on Modernization (FOM).”

Meanwhile, Congress must first decide whether to fund the F-15EX program — a likely prospect considering the draft House appropriations bill includes $986 million for eight jets.

Boeing appears receptive to the potential upgrade. In an emailed statement, Prat Kumar, the company’s vice president for the F-15 program, acknowledged the company is in talks with the Air Force about a pathway to incorporate the F-15EX into Skyborg.

“We are initiating early discussions with the U.S. Air Force customer on how to insert contemporary technology such as this,” he said. “The F-15EX is a uniquely suited platform for such tech insertions as it has available computing capacity and space to continue offering new capabilities to the warfighter.”

The biggest challenges, Roper said, may be technological and cultural — not financial.

“I don’t think there’s a barrier in terms of funding,” he said. “This is just different. There are going to be human factors, so how do you get a simulator to get you to do this? How do you get the AI in the attritable system? What do you do? What do you not allow it to do?”

When Roper recently visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the scientists he spoke to acknowledged that their AI research is driven by near-term commercial applications, like extending internet connectivity into everyday electronics. A future generation of AI, like self-driving cars, will have to grapple with questions of trust and audibility, Roper added.

But the AI the Pentagon wants would have to be more advanced from the get-go if the U.S. military is to protect itself from adversaries seeking to exploit system capabilities — such as pattern recognition, feature recognition and data extraction — by feeding it false information.

“The current generation of AI does not deal with a world that understands how AI works and intentionally trying to throw a wrench in its machine. We will deal with that,” Roper explained.

“We need to understand when the machine will be at its best and when the human will at its best. … We will need to get the person trained to have an instinct for AI just like they have an instinct for stealth,” he said. “When is their AI giving them an advantage, and when is it not?”

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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