NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Air Force has clearly expressed its desire for a futuristic fleet of drone “wingmen” considered vital to countering Russia and China, defense company executives said.

The exchange of info between buyer and builder for the collaborative combat aircraft endeavor, or CCA, has so far been “crystal clear,” according to David Alexander, the president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the maker of the Gray Eagle and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, among others.

“That’s helpful, especially for companies that want to invest and lean forward and see how we can get speed,” Alexander said Sept. 11 at the Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. “I really appreciate the clarity on that.”

The Air Force in the coming years wants to pair pilots with CCAs to afford them greater flexibility and firepower. The uncrewed aircraft could carry out a variety of missions: conducting reconnaissance and gathering intelligence; jamming signals and serving as decoys; and striking targets with their own missiles. Service officials have also said CCAs could range in cost and complexity, with some being expensive and precious while others could be easily traded in combat.

Robert Winkler, a vice president at Kratos, a California-based developer of uncrewed defense platforms, said the Air Force and Department of Defense have “100%” communicated their desires. The Air Force’s proposed budget for fiscal 2024 includes new spending to help it prepare for a future with drone wingmen, including an effort known as Project Venom that involves self-flying F-16 fighters.

“The number of people that are sitting in this room is a clear demand signal that this is an important portion of force design for the United States Air Force and for the Department of Defense,” Winkler said at the conference, where several keynotes and panel discussions were standing-room only.

A Kratos Valkyrie drone was earlier this year piloted by artificial intelligence algorithms as part of an Air Force Research Laboratory experiment.

Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, commander of the research lab, in a statement at the time said AI “will be a critical element to future warfighting and the speed at which we’re going to have to understand the operational picture and make decisions.” The Pentagon was juggling more than 685 AI-related projects, including several tied to major weapons systems, as of 2021.

“AI, autonomous operations, and human-machine teaming continue to evolve at an unprecedented pace and we need the coordinated efforts of our government, academia, and industry partners to keep pace,” Cain said.

Defense News reporter Stephen Losey contributed to this article.

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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