On Nov. 11, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency revealed it had recently awarded five companies contracts to develop artificial intelligence agents to enable “mixed teams of manned and unmanned combat aircraft to conduct aerial dogfighting autonomously.” The announcement signaled the next phase of the Air Combat Evolution, or ACE, program that in August delivered the AlphaDogfight challenge in which an AI agent defeated a human-piloted F-16 in a series of five virtual dogfights.
The challenge and contracts are both important steps forward for human-machine teaming and come at the end of a busy and consequential year globally for the development and demonstration of the sort of “loyal wingman”-type programs ACE is seeking to facilitate.
These concepts are already shaping the future of air combat and, in the process, transforming expectations for force structures of militaries throughout the world as they manage the mounting tension between an expanding mission set and the growing cost of advanced equipment to carry out these discrete missions.
Loyal wingman concepts pair a crewed fighter jet with a team of capable but also uncrewed low-cost, attritable aircraft, or LCAA. Each of the uncrewed aircraft can fly forward of its crewed partner and is equipped with a mission-specific payload such as sensors, weapons or electronic warfare capabilities. These aircraft can also serve as low-cost decoys to help identify and overwhelm enemy air defenses, or draw fires away from crewed aircraft.
Building these teams conveys a range of operational advantages. Most notably, they serve as powerful force multipliers that will both amplify and optimize the advanced capabilities of crewed aircraft, especially stealthy, fifth-generation aircraft.
According to an October report from the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, low-cost, attritable aircraft “could extend the effective sensor range and kill radius of F-22s, F-35As, and [Next-Generation Air Dominance assets], allowing smaller numbers to cover larger areas of the battlespace and kill more threats per sortie.”
In addition, the F-35′s sensor fusion capability as well as its ability to send and receive critical data across domains — which was demonstrated earlier this year during Army tests at Yuma Proving Ground — will be crucial to interacting with and exploiting the information from forward-deployed LCAA and, ultimately, turning pilots into high-impact mission managers.
The advantages of this form of human-machine teaming appeal to militaries throughout the world. China has expressed interest, though work in closely related drone swarming technologies has matured more quickly.
Russia has shown more progress. In September 2019, Russia announced a successful test flight of a Su-57 fifth-generation combat aircraft teamed with an S-70 Okhotnik UAV. A year later, Russian defense contractor Kronstadt Group revealed the Grom uncrewed combat aerial vehicle at the Army-2020 exhibition outside Moscow. The Grom is expected to team with both the Su-35 and Su-57 fighters to provide suppression of enemy air defenses.
Both the United Kingdom and Japan have announced similar programs, though among U.S. allies, Australia has moved the furthest and fastest in this critical technology area. In May, the Royal Australian Air Force and Boeing Australia demonstrated the first of three prototype uncrewed aircraft being developed as part of the Airpower Teaming System program, which will be teamed with the F-35 and E-7. The Royal Australian Air Force has also conducted engine and runway taxi tests in preparation for a test flight in the near future.
In addition to DARPA’s ACE initiative, the U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg program and LCAA development efforts have also achieved important milestones in 2020. Notably, the XQ-58 Valkyrie LCAA completed a successful test flight in April. The Air Force has also announced several rounds of contract awards as part of the Skyborg program, including to Boeing, General Atomics and Kratos, to support “operational experimentation.”
The benefits of these concepts go beyond the operational, and bleed into the strategic. Pursuit and adoption of low-cost, modular, uncrewed aircraft offers operational flexibility and provides a robust response to competitors’ modernization programs. But it could also help assuage longer-term budgetary pressures associated with meeting the challenge of novel threats and competition with peer competitors.
The high-level National Defense Strategy Commission argued in November 2018 that implementing the National Defense Strategy would require a 3-5 percent year-on-year real increase in U.S. defense spending, a development unlikely to occur even before COVID-19 dented the U.S. economy and added newly prioritized missions for the Department of Defense.
According to the Mitchell Institute report, teaming LCAA with a robust fleet of fifth-generation aircraft constitutes “an affordable way to grow the USAF’s combat capacity and balance its other requirements.”
As fast as these technologies and concepts have matured, technical challenges remain. Ensuring secure communications, improved human-machine interfaces, and, crucially, building more trust between humans and their AI agent partners are all at the top of the list of persistent technological focus areas.
However, gaining and sustaining competitiveness in this important capability area — one Japan’s Defense of Japan 2020 whitepaper rightly observed will “greatly change future air battle” — is not limited to the technical. Innovations, operational concepts, training, interoperability with allies, and envisioning and advancing new force structures are just as critical and as urgent to getting the most out of the DoD’s investments, crewed and uncrewed platforms, and people.
Tate Nurkin is a nonresident senior fellow with the Forward Defense program at the Atlantic Council. He founded OTH Intelligence Group and is a partner with One Defense. He is also the author of “The Five Revolutions: Examining Defense Innovation in the Indo-Pacific Region.”