WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s next big step toward establishing a network of drone wingmen could come in a small fleet of experimental self-flying F-16 fighters.

The service’s proposed fiscal 2024 budget includes nearly $50 million to start a program called Project Venom — or Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Model — to help it experiment with and refine autonomous software loaded onto six F-16s.

The Air Force wants to develop a fleet of at least 1,000 collaborative combat aircraft, or CCA, that will use autonomous capabilities to fly alongside the service’s future Next-Generation Air Dominance family of fighter systems and F-35A fighters. CCAs could carry missiles or other weapons, perform electronic warfare operations, or fly ahead of other aircraft so its sensors can provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

But before the Air Force can fly CCAs into combat, airmen need to be confident the autonomous software operating the drones will work properly, Brig. Gen. Dale White, the service’s program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, said Monday in an online forum hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“Without trusted autonomy, it’s one of those things that people are always going to wonder whether or not it’s going to act [according] to program,” White said. “That autonomous core system is absolutely critical.”

In a January interview with the service’s in-house Airman Magazine, Air Force Chief Scientist Victoria Coleman called Project Venom “a bridge between a fully autonomous set of capabilities and a fully manned set of capabilities, which is where we are today.”

Under Project Venom, Coleman told the magazine, the Air Force plans to add autonomous code to six F-16s. Human pilots would take off with the jets but allow the software to take over midair to determine whether it works and provides the expected benefits, Coleman said.

Coleman explained that this approach will let the Air Force add new software to speed up the experimentation process beyond what it usually takes to certify software for flight.

“Self driving cars didn’t go from fully manual to fully automated,” Coleman said. “The Tesla [vehicles] and the other electric vehicles, they’ve traveled millions or billions of miles where they learned and figured out how to interface with a human operator and to do so safely and securely. We don’t get to skip that part in the Air Force.”

Supporting budget documents released by the Air Force say Project Venom will allow the service to test new autonomous aircraft capabilities for the CCA program, while keeping a human in the cockpit to reduce risk.

The bulk of the Air Force’s FY24 request for Project Venom — or $47.4 million — will go to research and development efforts, with another $2.5 million for acquisition support.

The Air Force told Defense News it hasn’t made a final decision on which base and organization will host Project Venom. However, the budget does request 118 staff positions to support Project Venom at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

The Air Force also intends to spend between $17 million and $19 million per year on the program from FY25 to FY28. That means Project Venom would cost about $120 million over the next five years.

Venom’s siblings

At Monday’s Mitchell Institute event, Maj. Gen. Evan Dertien, head of the Air Force Test Center, said the pilot in a Project Venom F-16 can fly it to and from the airspace where autonomous capabilities and manned-unmanned teaming will undergo testing and development.

Dertien said the program isn’t meant to reinvent what exists, but rather to build on similar efforts such as Skyborg, an artificial intelligence-driven unmanned aircraft, and the X-62A VISTA. The latter — which stands for Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft — is a heavily adapted F-16 at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which the Air Force Research Laboratory uses to test autonomous software.

White said the Air Force is continuing to test Skyborg software in XQ-58 Valkyrie drones at Eglin.

And the results from Venom could be fed back into other programs such as VISTA’s own autonomy engine, Dertien said.

“It’s a natural evolution from everything you’ve seen before, and it’ll also be a feedback loop,” Dertien said. “Things we learn there, we can either incorporate back into the VISTA autonomy engine or basically do the [software development] there at Eglin to help develop that economy. But all of it is focused on ultimately delivering a CCA capability.”

The generals said the Air Force’s ultimate goal is to have one core autonomy engine it can use for its aircraft, instead of investing in multiple acquisition programs for autonomy for different platforms.

“We’re not going to recreate the wheel every time we go to a different platform, or if we evolve into a different platform,” White said. “The autonomy will be something that will be continuously iterated [over] time. VISTA and Venom both are critically important to that algorithm development and taking us to the next level.”

The commander of the Air Force Research Lab, Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, said Project Venom will produce a great deal of in-flight data about how pilots and machines work together. Researchers will sort through that information to develop the next generation of autonomy.

Dertien said VISTA has been useful for developing autonomous capabilities, but the aircraft doesn’t have a great deal of sensors. The F-16s used for Venom will come with an active electronically scanned array radar, electronic warning systems and other sensing capabilities that can expand the autonomous software’s view to help it make decisions.

But while the Air Force sees Next-Generation Air Dominance and its accompanying CCAs as elements of a so-called family of systems, it isn’t planning to wait until all NGAD elements are finished before rolling them out, according to Maj. Gen. Scott Jobe, director of plans, programs and requirements at Air Combat Command. That could mean putting CCAs alongside existing aircraft such as F-35s, even if NGAD’s crewed component isn’t ready.

“We’re not going to do this in a [way] where it’s all going to come out in one big bundle, like a Christmas present that you open on Christmas Day,” Jobe said during the think tank event. “This is going to roll out and integrate with our existing fleet and forces that we have — both on the Air Force and on the Navy side of things.”

The budget also proposes $69 million to launch an experimental operations unit team. Coleman said in the January interview that this team will start to develop the tactics and procedures to incorporate CCAs into a squadron. That includes understanding how CCA capabilities would help with missions and how squadrons would train to use CCAs during operations.

“I can guarantee you a squadron that is half man, half machine is going to look very different than the one we have today,” Coleman said.

The Air Force’s budget documents indicate it wants to spend $44.5 million on the experimental operations unit in 2025, and then between $56 million and $58 million per year through 2028.

The budget documents say this program will reduce the risk squadrons might face when teaming CCAs with crewed aircraft. The teams working on this program will conduct analyses, demonstrations and experiments to develop and refine the concept of operations for using CCAs.

Dertien said the Air Force is already bringing “the right experts … our young captains and majors” into the effort to help identify how CCAs will operate alongside piloted aircraft.

But while questions remain about how NGAD and its drone wingmen will work, the generals said the technology is necessary to ensure the United States can maintain air superiority. As an example of the importance of securing the skies, Jobe pointed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which Moscow has struggled for more than a year to achieve air superiority,

“I see lots of challenges as far as fielding this NGAD family of systems, but I also see lots of opportunities to go deliver something new and innovative that will help out the warfighter,” Dertien said.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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