Developments on both sides of the Atlantic signal push to develop AI attack drones

Artist impression of crewed aircraft operating with autonomous drones. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Recent government and industry announcements signal clear intent by both the US and the UK to press ahead with the development of a new generation of AI attack drones despite serious concerns about the development of autonomous weapons. While most details are being kept secret, it is clear from official statements, industry manoeuvring and budget commitments that these new drones are expected to be operational by the end of the decade.

The current focus is the development of drones that were previously labelled as ‘loyal wingman’ but are now being described either as ‘Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) or ‘Autonomous Collaborative Platforms (ACP).  As always, the nomenclature around ‘drones’ is a battlefield itself.  The concept for this type of drone is for one or more to fly alongside, or in the vicinity of, a piloted military aircraft with the drones carrying out specifically designated tasks such as surveillance, electronic warfare, guiding weapons onto targets, or carrying out air-to-air or air-to-ground strikes.  Rather than being directly controlled by individual on the ground such as current armed drones like the Reaper or Bayraktar, these drones will fly autonomously. According to DARPA officials (using the beloved sports metaphor) these drone will allow pilots to direct squads of unmanned aircraft “like a football coach who chooses team members and then positions them on the field to run plays.”

Next Generation

In May, the US Air Force issued a formal request for US defence companies to bid to build a new piloted aircraft to replace the F-22.  However, equally important for the ‘Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD)’ program is the development of new autonomous drones and a ‘combat cloud’ communication network.  While the development of the drones is a covert programme, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said they will be built “in parallel” to the piloted aircraft. Kendall publicly stated that the competition to develop CCA was expected to begin in Fiscal Year 2024 (note this runs from Oct 2023 to Sept 2024).

While it is planning to build around 200 of the new crewed aircraft, Kendall told reporters that the USAF is expecting to build around 1,000 of the drones. “This figure was derived from an assumed two CCAs per 200 NGAD platforms and an additional two for each of 300 F-35s for a total of 1,000,” Kendall explained. Others expect even more of these drones to be built.  While the NGAD fighter aircraft itself is not expected to be operational until the 2030s, CCA’s are expected to be deployed by the end of the 2020’s.

It’s important to be aware that there will not be one type of drone built under this programme, but a range with different capabilities able to carry out different tasks.  Some of them will be ‘expendable’ – that is designed for just one mission – something like the ‘one-way attack’ drones that we have seen increasing used in Ukraine and elsewhere; some will be ‘attritable’, that is designed that if they are lost in combat it would not be severely damaging, while others, described as ‘exquisite’ will be more capable and specifically designed not to be lost during combat.  A number of companies have set out their proposals, with some even building prototypes and undertaking test flights. Read more