The US Air Force has been discussing its Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program since the early 2000s. CCAs use artificial intelligence (AI) to operate in collaborative teams with the next generation of manned combat aircraft.

The success of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as force multipliers in Ukraine has put new impetus behind the program, which seeks to supplement its fighter and bomber fleets with cheaper AI-guided unmanned aircraft.

According to the Wall Street Journal the US Air Force plans to produce about a thousand unmanned, AI-equipped fighter jets over the next five years. The unmanned aircraft will initially act as “wingmen” to supplement, protect and support its manned combat aircraft, primarily its fifth generation F-35 fighters.


The jet-powered drones will be able to replicate all of the operational tasks of conventional aircraft, including reconnaissance, as well as engaging both air and ground targets. Given the rise in cost of the most modern aircraft, it is hoped that the drones will enable more aircraft for less money. The Pentagon estimates that the most sophisticated drone will cost around a third of a comparable fighter jet, and there will be additional savings in pilot training costs.

Even so, the cost of just the first stage of the program is expected to be around $6 billion. Current contenders to secure Defense Department contracts are the Anduril Industries’ “Fury,” Boeing’s “MQ-28A Ghost Bat,” developed in cooperation with the Australian Air Force, and General Atomics’ “Gambit,” which have already developed prototypes of their proposals.

SBU Drones Hit Oil Depot in Russia’s Rostov Region, Sources Say
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SBU Drones Hit Oil Depot in Russia’s Rostov Region, Sources Say

Sources told Kyiv Post that various brands of gasoline and diesel fuel with a total volume of 12.5 thousand cubic meters were stored there.

The other main contenders, along with Northrop Grumman, have yet to reveal an aircraft design. Lockheed Martin has been working on human-machine pairing technology through its Project Carrera and Northrop Grumman has been working with AI as part of the US Army’s Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (FTUAS) program.


The US Air Force’s move towards unmanned combat aircraft marks a significant change in military strategy, with a new approach to combining technological innovation with the tactical versatility that drones have given to the fighting in Ukraine. If successful, CCAs will redefine the future of aerial warfare, promising a more agile, efficient, and lethal force capability.

As the manufacturers work on the technology, Air Force officials will be examining a range of operational and logistical issues, such as payload capability, peacetime and wartime runway requirements, fixed and mobile infrastructure, in-air refueling and so on.

Another issue that has to be tackled is the future unit organization. Thomas Lawhead, US Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, said: “That, frankly, is exactly what the [team] and the experimental ops unit are going to try and get after: What does the fighter squadron of the future look like?

“All of those are issues to be worked out as we see one what kind of CCAs we actually get out of this [contractual process]… The experimental ops unit folks will develop tactics, techniques and procedures for how we want to employ them, and then [examine] the best way to organize, train and equip those squadrons most efficiently, most effectively,” he added.


The US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said: “These drones are not just additions to the fleet; they are potential lifesavers, heralding a new era where pilotless fighters play a crucial role in securing victory and safeguarding lives.”

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