Added value and possible employment concepts for unmanned collaborative combat aircraft systems in FCAS and equivalent programs


Most of the major military powers – either alone or in partnership – are designing future air combat systems of systems based on collaborative combat between new-generation manned fighters and unmanned aircraft systems.

The standard-setter in this field is clearly the United States. After years of procrastination, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and the U.S. Navy (USN) are now focusing on developing a substantial inventory of Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) in the medium term, to increase the depth of their combat aircraft fleet, which they believe has shrunk to a level unable to counter Chinese aggression. The current concept is that of “affordable mass”, i.e. increased mass at controlled cost. These CCAs will be integrated into the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) systems of systems for both the U.S. Air Force and Navy. The first mission set concerned by this vast collaborative combat architecture is counterair, achieving air superiority (i.e. locating and suppressing enemy air defense systems – SEAD), but the USAF envisages “100 roles” for CCAs (interdiction, CAS, communications relay). That said, the debate on the tradeoffs to be found in terms of the cost and operational performance of these systems is still ongoing.

The Americans are currently working on land-based, mostly recoverable aircraft, based on developments such as the Kratos XQ-58, the Gambit family from GA-ASI, or Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat, although it is not certain that these systems are yet up to the task. Nonetheless, a system of this type will probably form the backbone of the initial CCA increment, translating into the acquisition of at least one thousand units by the U.S. Air Force in the medium term to operate in Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) with the F-35 and then the NGAD fighter. While the platform(s) to be used will depend on the level of performance required, it seems certain that these systems will be based on a modular open architecture and on the Skyborg artificial intelligence system, development of which is already complete. The Americans are also developing unmanned air-launched vehicles (e.g. the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Longshot program). Lockheed Martin’s designs and the Mitchell Institute’s wargames suggest that the U.S. will probably eventually settle on a family of CCAs offering varying levels of performance, some expendable, others recoverable, with a variety of launch solutions, including small numbers of “exquisite” recoverable systems – highly sophisticated unmanned intelligence platforms or Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs). The experts involved in the Mitchell Institute’s work on several counterair missions favored the massive use of expendable CCAs for decoy, ISR, collaborative air combat and communications relay purposes in the initial phase of combat, flying ahead of fifth-generation fighters, before engaging more sophisticated recoverable CCAs once enemy capabilities had been weakened, in order to expand the coverage of the friendly system. They did not use available UCAV solutions.

Many countries are following the American example, albeit with more limited resources:

  • The UK, with BAE Systems, is developing RC solutions in conjunction with the Tempest Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP)two types of land-based, recoverable RC, light and heavy, offering different levels of sophistication.
  • Australia is cooperating with Boeing on the MQ-28 Ghost Bat, a concept similar to the American CCA. This Australian model is also inspiring the Koreans, who are working on a loyal wingman drone to accompany advanced versions of their KF-21 Boramea fighter.
  • Japan is also developing an RC capable of operating with its future F-X fighter in the 2030s, with support from the U.S.
  • Among strategic competitors, Russia’s situation is the most uncertain. Moscow is working on the development of UCAV-type loyal wingman drones such as the S-70 Okhotnik and Grom, but Western sanctions and the lack of propulsion solutions have drastically slowed progress on these programs.
  • China is in a much better position, and is developing, among a wide range of UAVs, a family of collaborative combat systems to operate in MUM-T mode with manned fighters, in particular the J-20: the Feihung FH-95 turboprop ISR and electronic warfare drone and FH-97 combat drone, which closely resemble recoverable American CCA designs.
  • India is also developing its own system of systems, the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, comprising the Tejas manned fighter as a “mothership” and several RCs, in particular the CATS Warrior, quite similar to the MQ-28 and XQ-58, the CATS Hunter, a recoverable cruise missile-type RC, and ALFA loitering munitions.
  • Turkey, which has set up an air power model with extensive reliance on unmanned aircraft, both for its DITB and to compensate for problems on its combat aircraft programs, is also pursuing the development of its own MUM-T RC technology building blocks alongside the future F-X Kaan fighter: Bayraktar’s supersonic Kizilelma UCAV, Anka-3 stealth drone, Super Simsek expendable drones and Turkish Aerospace’s Autonomous Wingman Concept.

We note that for most of these air forces, the development of unmanned vehicle technology building blocks and MUM-T systems comes in response to the critical need to compensate for a shortfall in the number of conventional combat aircraft, which can have multiple causes.

What conclusions can be drawn for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and its collaborative combat aircraft systems? In many respects, the French case is similar to that of several of these nations. It is true that, considering the tendency set by the multiyear LPM military spending bill, future French air power should benefit from multiple capability advances, including a Next Generation Fighter (NGF), providing all the added value of a new-generation combat aircraft, indispensable in the battlefield of the future. This being said, the first challenge facing the RCs is to correct the lack of depth in air power, which is likely to continue to deteriorate and will become increasingly problematic as more and more nations implement IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems) upgrades, or as American reassurance becomes increasingly uncertain. The consequences of such a decline are well known: it affects the ability to meet requirements in the various strategic functions; in intervention more specifically, it makes attrition unsustainable, reduces the range of operational options available, and makes it impossible to maintain permanent postures, e.g. for dynamic targeting.

Beyond this question of depth, RCs can also qualitatively enhance the capabilities of air combat power: by providing a “stand-in” capability (usable inside the engagement range of enemy systems) they increase the penetrating mass of air power; they enable intelligence and engagement/combat capabilities to be dispersed and disaggregated, making the latter more resilient and improving spatial and temporal coverage. The diversity of launch solutions, which are truly multi-domain, enhances the flexibility and availability of air power.

In many respects, the thinking of Airbus and MBDA on the one hand, and that of American experts (highlighted by the work of the Mitchell Institute mentioned above), on the other, converge towards fairly comparable types of solution, within the framework of an FCAS architecture which is of the same order as that of American NGAD. This applies to the need to reduce “cost per effect” through a mix of attritable systems, whether expendable or recoverable, offering a variety of launch solutions. A number of conditions must be satisfied before these systems can be implemented. These include the definition of tradeoffs between operational performance and cost, the need to develop specific equipment and munitions, the indispensable connectivity architecture and autonomy solutions both for the manned platform whose crew will have to manage these RC missions and, of course, for the vehicles themselves. The autonomy of these vehicles will then have to be governed by very strict rules of engagement. In our view, the actions of these drones can be managed at two levels: at the level of the mission leader, of course, which is what is most often envisioned (hence the notion of the loyal wingman), but also potentially at the level of the Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) function, which will itself be increasingly distributed. The Americans emphasize that the degree of autonomy to be granted to unmanned aircraft within the context of these rules of engagement, and the level of management of their actions, are variable and interdependent. In particular, they will depend on the operational context, including an electromagnetic environment that can be Disconnected, Intermittent, Limited (DIL) to varying degrees, which affects the functioning of the combat cloud, the connective tissue of the system of systems.

From an operational point of view, these RCs can transform the performance of all missions, including:

  • for the intelligence function, by providing penetrating sensor networks that considerably extend the coverage of ISR systems;
  • in the counterair domain, by providing remote decoy, jamming, targeting and engagement capabilities in collaboration with fighter aircraft stationed well away from the front line, enabling on the one hand disorientation and saturation actions required to blind and disintegrate enemy integrated air defense systems (through SEAD and fighter sweep); and on the other, the creation of dynamic targeting capabilities enabling a sustained SEAD effort for an extended duration in a semi-permissive environment;
  • in the offensive counterland (OCL) domain, by increasing the penetrating mass at the start of the campaign and then maintaining coverage of large areas for longer periods of time, enabling the multiplication of interdiction dynamic targeting capabilities, which are also necessary to increase the availability of close air support;
  • by providing advanced sensor networks and transmission relays to extend the range and robustness of the Battle Management C2 (BMC2) function.

In conclusion, there is no shortage of potential uses for RCs in future air combat, to recreate the “affordable mass” that the Americans talk about and that Europe sorely needs. Nevertheless, there are a number of challenges to overcome if we are to exploit the full potential of these systems.

It seems to us that we must examine the efficiency of these systems in relation to manned fighters. This efficiency depends on a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the expendable nature that these machines must retain if they are to be acquired in sufficient numbers, and, on the other hand, performance and reliability thresholds – a compromise that is all the more difficult to find given the need to anticipate, among other things, the confrontation with Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) transformed to survive saturation. Secondly, RC employment concepts will have to be based on excellent multi-domain integration to optimize synergies. This raises the question of the C2 agility of the forces implementing these drones, as well as the issue of multinational interoperability between FCAS, NGAD, GCAP and other systems of systems. In terms of technical resources, this presupposes that combat clouds are actually developed as planned. In this respect, while construction of MUM-T will be based in part on existing technologies, e.g. in terms of connectivity, it is also based on technological presuppositions that have yet to be demonstrated, notably in the field of artificial intelligence, particularly for manned platforms managing the missions.

These various conditions naturally argue in favor of incremental development, starting as soon as possible, for both RCs and the combat cloud, in order to open avenues leading to concrete solutions to these multiple challenges, as the demonstrations already undertaken or planned fortunately tend to indicate.


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