Since the beginning of Ukraine’s brave fight to remove Russian invaders from its territory, the effective use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, has caught the attention of the world’s defense organizations. The US is no different. Captured by the notion of small, autonomous flying machines as weapons to defeat everything from tanks to warships to infantry in the field, weaponized drones are the next shiny object. The Pentagon made known its intention to go full speed ahead with developing swarms of the lethal areal aircraft and ground- and sea-based drones in a keynote speech by the deputy secretary of defense at a recent National Defense Industry Association (NDIA) conference. However, are these unmanned weapon systems the warfighting game changers some believe?
This is, after all, the same crowd that believes it should turn 170,000 non-tactical vehicles into electric conveyances. So, taking what the current defense leadership is pushing with a healthy dose of skepticism is always prudent. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks recently talked to the NDIA about the initiatives to drive innovation into weapons buying to counter China. She was particularly enthusiastic about what she called “the latest piece of our comprehensive, warfighting-centric approach to innovation.” You are probably thinking, “Hummm…warfighting-centric, eh, in a discussion about innovation; isn’t that like a church announcing, ‘religious emphasis week?” So, what are you thinking about the rest of the time, other than warfighting?
Hicks describes what the Defense Department calls its “Replicator Initiative.” The vision is to present the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with the dilemma of mass. That is not simply cutting-edge technology in bombers, expensive cruise missiles, warships, and generation-plus fighter aircraft, but swarms of small, less costly drones in all warfighting domains. The intention is to overwhelm PLAAF and PLAN defenses. “Replicator is meant to help us overcome the PRC’s biggest advantage, which is mass. More ships. More missiles. More people. Before Russia invaded Ukraine again in February, they seemed to have that advantage too,” Hicks told the NDIA audience. “We’ll counter the PLA’s mass with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, harder to beat.”
Hicks said that DOD had already begun investing in “autonomous attritable” warfighting systems in land, sea, and air combat. Where the deputy secretary may be jumping the shark is talking about an objective of “’multiple thousands’ of systems within the next 18 to 24 for months,” Mike Brest’s explained writing for Washington Examiner.
Nonetheless, programs like the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) are typical of what the deputy secretary is talking about. The idea behind the CCA is that an F-35 fighter or B-21 bomber would act as a “mother ship” for a bevy of unmanned aerial vehicles that could serve as complementary fighters to increase the combat footprint or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft capability. The concept provides actual air-to-air and air-to-ground lethality to the Replicator Initiative. Furthermore, as envisioned by the Air Force, the CCA has a joint application with the US Navy and Marine Corps. “The US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps have agreed to work together on developing collaborative combat aircraft (CCA) by standardizing multiple components of their respective systems, as the Navy is finalizing its requirements and acquisition strategy,” according to Aviation Week.
Swarms of Drones – More Aspirational Than Realistic?
The Navy is working to get the requirements for the collaborative aircraft mission, but the final concept of operations is a long way off as a program. Additionally, the low-cost description of the CCA airframes may be a tough goal to achieve. “Air Force Sec. Frank Kendall has said CCA aircraft must be at least ‘attritable,’ a term the service uses to mean they could be reused, but inexpensive enough that they could be lost in combat,” Steven Losey wrote for Military Times. Whatever time frame Deputy Secretary Hicks has in mind, it may not be consistent with the Air Force CCA program. “According to Air and Space Forces Magazine, the USAF has mapped out spending requests totaling $6bn (sic) for research, development, and experimentation efforts under the CCA program for the next five years through FY2028,” Air Force Technology reported in July. That does not sound like the program is imminent.
When all is said and done, like 170,000 electric non-tactical vehicles, the notion of “multiple thousands of systems within the next 18 to 24 for months,” may be more aspirational than realistic. There is a concept that is applied to Pentagon programs. If a program is going to die, it is described as so big no one can get their head wrapped around it or presented as so small that it is considered insignificant for consideration. Hicks’ vision of the all-domain drone capability probably falls into the former category. Adult requirements, budget, and acquisition professionals will eventually get involved, and an executable program will emerge. With China as the threat, it should be sooner.
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