WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin is eyeing a mix of expendable drone wingmen and more advanced autonomous systems for the U.S. Air Force to team up with its manned fighters.
The service could fly the expendable drones in as soon as three years, the vice president and general manager of the company’s advanced development programs division, known as Skunk Works, said July 11.
John Clark said in a briefing with reporters before the Farnborough Airshow, scheduled for July 18-22 in London, that the expendable drones will have a much lower price point than the more advanced systems, making a quicker delivery easier.
Lockheed wants those expendable drones available should a conflict with China erupt sometime this decade, as top U.S. Air Force officials said could happen. “We’re really talking about something that could be operational in the next three to four years, so that our folks in the Pacific have that tool in their toolbox, should they need it,” Clark said.
The more advanced systems could start showing up in the 2030s, Clark said. They would have more capabilities, including the ability to return to base for reuse after each mission, he added. Lockheed envisions those drones returning to bases established under the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment concept, which includes setting up more austere, spread-out bases, in some cases using rough runways.
The service has for years worked on adding autonomous and artificial intelligence capabilities to drones. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has repeatedly discussed his desire to partner as many as five drones with a manned fighter, such as the F-35 or Next Generation Air Dominance platform. Kendall earlier this year said turning the crewed-uncrewed teaming concept into reality is one of his top priorities.
Clark said teaming these uncrewed systems with manned fighters could help the Air Force maintain its combat capability in the next decade, as older air frames like the F-16 start to wear out. Lockheed envisions these drones working as part of a “distributed team,” each with their own coordinated roles to play and complementing the piloted fighter, Clark added.
Clark said Skunk Works isn’t ready to reveal images of the drones it is working on, saying that could tip its hand on some of its more advanced design concepts.
But a concept video posted by Lockheed illustrates how this distributed team concept could work. It shows an animation of an F-35 flying alongside a variety of drones, including one with a flying wing shape similar to the B-21.
In the video, a formation of F-35s and accompanying drone swarms fly into highly contested airspace, with some drones serving as target decoys for an enemy’s surface-to-air missiles, distracting them while other drones use electronic warfare capabilities against the air defenses.
Other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information drones identify the location of hidden surface-to-air batteries and beam that data back to the piloted F-35s, the animated video shows. Then another group of armed drones, directed by the F-35 pilots, flies ahead and shoots down enemy fighters.
Clark said it is important for the advanced drones accompanying piloted aircraft to have radar signatures and survivability that is comparable to the piloted aircraft in the lead so that the drones don’t inadvertently tip off the enemy.
While this drives up the cost, he noted, it also means the Air Force would have a better chance at getting the advanced drones back and capable of flying again.
He also said the drones could be slower or faster than the piloted fighter in the lead, and the concept would still work.
Clark said a drone teaming with a piloted F-35 could, for example, carry four to eight more AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles. Giving the team of piloted fighters and drones much more firepower gives them a better chance of surviving the mission, he said.
Lockheed is working on connecting the drones to F-35s using Joint All-Domain Command and Control technology, Clark said. An early concept the company considered, Clark said, was having a low-Earth orbit constellation of remote sensor satellites that could provide information to a Next Generation Air Dominance fighter or B-21 Raider bomber.
Lockheed then shifted course to looking at low-cost, expendable aircraft. Clark said this would be important in a conflict where the Air Force is likely to lose multiple drones in a short period of time. If each vehicle costs $10 million, Clark explained, those costs start to add up quickly.
For the drones that don’t get shot down, the logistics requirements to recover and sustain them so they can fly again could also be considerable, he added, and if that includes using the Navy to fish out drones that have splashed down in the sea, that places the service vessel at risk.
Clark said Skunk Works has also looked at the expendable drones as essentially loitering munitions in some cases. In that scenario, the drone would carry out as many of its roles as it could until it flies into a target and “actually ends with a bang,” he said.
Lockheed has also worked together with the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California to test how autonomy and artificial intelligence software could work with an F-16.
“One of the things that we explored was that the uncrewed vehicle, it had passive sensors that were fixated on what the crewed system was doing, and focusing on it,” Clark said. “It would adjust its behaviors and its evaluations based on what it was observing.”
Most importantly, he added, the human pilot didn’t need to focus a lot of attention steering the drone teammate.
“We’ll never get these types of crewed-uncrewed teaming concepts put in place if we put a lot of workload on the pilots in the system,” Clark said. “They already have a heavy burden to bear with the maintenance of their own aircraft, and collaboration within a four-[fighter formation] of, say, an F-35. To go load direct control of a bunch of uncrewed vehicles on top of them is really not a tenable path.”
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.