US Air Force Needs Robotic Wingmen In Fight Against Communist China: Report

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by Tyler Durden
Sunday, Feb 18, 2024 - 04:20 AM

Authored by Frank Fang via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

The U.S. Air Force needs to pair its manned combat aircraft with next-generation drones—known as collaborative combat aircraft (CCA)—to gain the air superiority needed in a war against China’s communist regime, according to a recent report by the Washington-based Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Four F-35A's of Hill Air Force Bases 388th and 419th fighter wings sit on the runway waiting for take-off in Hill Air Force Base, Utah, on Nov. 19, 2018. (George Frey/Getty Images)

The report, based on wargames run by the Mitchell Institute in counterair missions defending Taiwan against China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), demonstrates how CCAs were used as airborne sensors, decoys, jammers, or weapon launchers in cooperation with crewed aircraft like the Air Force’s 5th generation fighter F-35 and F-22 Raptor.

The Pentagon has characterized China as its pacing challenge amid the regime’s rapid modernization of its military. According to a 2023 report from the Department of Defense (DOD), PLA Air Force and PLA Navy Aviation had about 2,400 combat aircraft, and China “probably will become a majority fourth-generation force within the next several years.”

In comparison, the report notes that the U.S. Air Force currently “operates a force that is the oldest, smallest, and least ready in its history,” adding that it now consists primarily of 179 aging 4th-generation F-15C/Ds and 185 5th-generation F-22s.

The defense budget trends tell us it’s simply unreasonable to assume the Air Force, or DOD for that matter, will soon be able to match the PLA aircraft for aircraft, weapon for weapon, ship for ship, and so on,” said Mark Gunzinger—a retired Air Force colonel who leads future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute, and one of the authors of the report—during the report’s rollout event on Feb. 6.

“Instead, our military must invest in asymmetric capabilities that will disrupt the PLA’s operations, impose costs, and create the conditions for mission success. And that’s a key reason why the Air Force is developing CCA,” Mr. Gunzinger added.

According to the Department of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, CCAs must be capable of “taking high level direction” from a pilot and then “autonomously implementing this direction.” The uncrewed aircraft must also employ “a distributed, mission-tailorable mix of sensors, weapons, and other mission equipment.”

Acting Air Force Undersecretary Krysten E. Jones disclosed during an event held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in January that contracts had been awarded to five companies to build a fleet of 1,000 CCAs. Air & Space Forces Magazine later confirmed the five selected companies are Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Anduril, and General Atomics.

Failing to achieve air superiority in a conflict with China would greatly increase the risk of a costly defeat that has existential, long-term impacts on the security of the United States and its allies,” the report says.


Mr. Gunzinger emphasized that CCAs can be more than adjuncts to crewed aircraft.

“There’s a need to break from the mindset that CCA will always operate in support of crewed aircraft,” Mr. Gunzinger said. “CCAs—that are properly designed, have the right mission systems, [and] degree of autonomy—could also be used as lead forces to disrupt enemies’ air defense operations.”

The report explains that expendable CCAs—cheaper models with less advanced features that come with a price tag of $15 million or less each—could be used as lead forces to “complicate the PLA’s counterair targeting” and “cause PLA defenses to partially deplete their air-to-air and surface-to-air weapons.”

CCAs can also work with non-stealthy combat aircraft, according to the report.

Today, the Air Force’s non-stealthy combat aircraft may have to stand-off from Chinese air defenses at distances that are outside the range of current U.S. counterair weapons—possibly 800 [nautical miles] or more,” the report reads.

When paired with CCAs, stand-off bombers and fighters could “directly contribute to the fight for air superiority,” according to the report. Meanwhile, crewed combat aircraft can become more lethal when paired with CCAs.

“Using CCA as sensors and shooters could also reduce the need for crewed fighters to activate their radar, open their weapons bay doors, or perform other actions that would temporarily reduce their stealthy signature,” the report says. “This would help reduce crewed aircraft attrition rates, which has a force-multiplying effect over the course of an air campaign.”

The report also highlights how CCAs can potentially be designed so that they are launched from either short runaways or no runways, meaning they can be stationed in many different locations, creating a “more dispersed, resilient forward posture.” Air-launching CCAs can have longer ranges since they don’t need to consume fuel to take off or climb to an operational altitude.

“Because uncrewed CCA may not need to fly as frequently as crewed aircraft, they could be postured in forward locations along the Pacific’s First Island Chain like other pre-positioned materiel,” the report says.

Forward posturing CCA in this way could help the Air Force sustain its initial combat pulses to defeat Chinese aggression and reduce reliance on long-range supply chains that will be at risk of attack.

The first island chain includes the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, and the northern Phillippines. Taking over Taiwan would allow China to break the chain and project its military power in the Pacific Ocean.

“These CCA could be used in disruptive ways that will help offset the PLA’s ability to project superior combat mass to control the air over the Taiwan Strait and other areas of the South China Sea,” the report says.


Experts taking part in the wargames “unanimously agreed” that CCAs will be “additive and complementary” to crewed aircraft, according to Mr. Gunzinger.

“They’re not going to reduce the Air Force’s requirements for F-35s, NGAD, and B-21s,” Mr. Gunzinger said. “The maximum combat value will be realized by taking full advantage of the attributes that crude and uncouth uncrewed aircraft [that] each bring to the fight.”

The U.S. Air Force is looking to replace F-22s with sixth-generation fighter aircraft via the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.

“NGAD will include attributes such as enhanced lethality and the ability to survive, persist, interoperate, and adapt in the air domain, all within highly contested operational environments,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said in May last year.

The report offers several recommendations for the U.S. Air Force, including carrying out analyses to determine the “right tradeoffs” to balance cost and design attributes for its future fleet of CCAs.

“A CCA designed as an expendable decoy may not require as much payload capacity or the same degree of low observability as recoverable/attritable CCA that are designed to fly multiple sorties,” the report says. “Balancing CCA capabilities with their mission requirements and costs will be key to maximizing their combat utility and cost-effectiveness.”

In November last year, Mr. Kendall took part in an event at the Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS). During the event, he said the cost of a single CCA would be “on the order of a quarter or a third” of the current cost of an F-35—meaning that a CCA would cost about $20 million to $27 million.

The report recommends that the U.S. Air Force develop “innovative operating concepts for using CCA to disrupt China’s advanced IADS [integrated air defense system] and other counter-intervention operations.”

The U.S. Air Force should also develop smaller weapons to take maximum advantage of CCA payload limitations. The report explains that increasing the number of targets CCA can attack per sortie “is critical to rapidly halting a Chinese offensive.”

The report also advises the Pentagon to work with Congress to increase U.S. Air Force funding.