ORLANDO, Fla. — The Air Force’s next budget proposal, expected to be released by the end of March, will provide more clues on how it hopes to mix manned fighters and bombers with autonomous combat drones.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall views this concept as so vital that elements of it made up two of the seven operational imperatives he outlined in his March 3 keynote address to the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium here.

Kendall reiterated his belief that the classified Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, concept should combine up to five unmanned, autonomous and attritable aircraft controlled by a single piloted that is “calling plays” for the drones to follow. The F-35 could also be teamed up with unmanned aircraft, he said.

And the Air Force must define a “family of systems” for the in-development B-21 Raider long range strike bomber, he said. This would be similar to NGAD, including by teaming autonomous combat drones up with the B-21.

Kendall first told Politico in December the fiscal 2023 budget would ask for money for two combat drones to team up with fighters and bombers, and in subsequent public remarks detailed his vision for such a concept.

At AFA, Kendall said the upcoming budget proposal would have “alignment” with the operational imperatives he laid out.

But there are still many details on these concepts that remain to be hashed out. For example, Kendall said, autonomous drone wingmen must have enough range to go as far as their piloted aircraft will go, and still have a reasonable payload when it reaches the target.

And Kendall said the Air Force wants these systems to cost half as much, if not cheaper, than the manned NGAD and B-21 counterparts.

“Together, with the B-21 and NGAD platforms, uncrewed systems would provide enhanced mission-tailorable levels of capability,” Kendall said. “They could deliver a range of sensors, payloads and weapons, or other mission equipment and they can also be attritable or even sacrificed if doing so conferred a major operational advantage.”

In a roundtable with reporters later that day, Kendall said more work needs to be done to flesh out the idea of teaming drones up with the B-21. He said this concept is still in its earlier stages and its possible cost-effectiveness is somewhat more “speculative.” The NGAD’s drone-teaming concept is a little more mature, he said, and he has greater confidence in it.

The following week, Kendall told the McAleese Defense Programs Conference he had conversations at AFA with several unidentified companies, including small businesses, that are working on “very interesting things” in unmanned combat aircraft.

“It is reasonably clear to me that we are poised to go ahead and take a significant step forward in that area,” Kendall said at the McAleese conference. “I don’t know exactly how long a step that’s going to be, but I’m determined to make it.”

Kendall also wants these aircraft to be adaptable and allow the Air Force to add technologies and new capabilities as they become available and needed.

Lt. Gen. Clint Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, said at the McAleese conference the price points for these autonomous drone wingmen “right now are all over the place, and that’s probably a good thing.”

Some of the platforms being considered or experimented with are “exquisite,” Hinote said, and others are lower cost and just do one or two things well. There’s also matters of range, speed, weapons capacity and other factors that affect the cost, he said.

Hinote said Kendall wants to find a way to deliver combat capability at a lower price point by using autonomous aircraft and get away from the considerable growth in the cost of fighters and bombers in recent years.

“What the secretary is worried about is that if we don’t change the way that we go forward, we’re going to have an unaffordable Air Force,” Hinote said.

Darlene Costello, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in a March 4 roundtable with reporters at AFA the service is now conducting an analysis to see how such an autonomous, uncrewed aircraft could be beneficial in combat, and whether it would be cost-effective.

If the concept shows promise in these studies, Costello said, the Air Force could move to make it a program of record. But that step won’t happen this year, she said.

The kind of drone wingmen a B-21 might need would likely differ from those making up the NGAD system, she said, and would require different solutions.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s work on the Skyborg program, an artificial intelligence-driven unmanned aircraft, is one of the efforts Kendall is looking at as a possible example of how this concept could work. Costello said AFRL’s lab work is helping inform the broader studies on the autonomous wingman concept.

In a briefing with reporters at AFA, AFRL commander Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle expressed confidence in Skyborg’s prospects and said the last year of experimentation has been very successful.

“We’ve taken capabilities like an autonomous core that does basic flight maneuvers, and we’ve demonstrated this kind of a capability not just on one aircraft, but multiple aircrafts and different manufacturers,” Pringle said. “That’s a modular, portable autonomy core system, and that is really exciting. That is advancing the ball, and we’re going to continue to move the ball in ‘22.”

That will include more experimenting with the General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger and Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie drones, she said. AFRL is also partnering with the test center at Edwards Air Force Base in California to make sure it can support the kind of tests needed for Skyborg. And the lab is working on maturing Skyborg’s technology, particularly its autonomous core system, Pringle said.

And in a “particularly exciting” development, Pringle added, AFRL is working towards using the X-62A VISTA at Edwards as a platform to test Skyborg. The VISTA, which stands for Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft, began its life in 1992 as an F-16 but has been heavily adapted over the years into an advanced testing aircraft.

Brig. Gen. Dale White, the program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, said at the AFRL briefing that with Kendall’s emphasis on teaming autonomous aircraft up with piloted aircraft, his office will increasingly partner with Pringle and AFRL — as well as work more closely with the operational side of the service.

White said this capability will be increasingly important as the Air Force shifts away from the counterinsurgency mission it’s focused on for the last two decades, toward the potential for a high-end fight against a nation with comparable military strength such as China.

“This is very focused on what the warfighters need, and they’re with us every step of the way,” Pringle said.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.

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