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Air Force planning 2 new secret combat drones, Air Force sec. reveals

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 20, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)
December 07, 2021

The U.S. Air Force is planning for two secretive new combat drones, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed during an interview with Politico at the Reagan National Defense Forum on Saturday.

Speaking from the sidelines of the forum, Kendall told the news outlet that the Air Force is seeking two new aircraft in the near future.

“I’ve got two that I’m going to have in the ‘23 budget in some form,” Kendall said. “They’re both unmanned air combat vehicles, unmanned platforms that are designed to work in conjunction with fighter aircraft like [the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter] or F-22 or the F-35. On the other hand they work in conjunction with bombers like the B-21.”

Kendall offered few details about the new drones but said the Department of the Air Force will formally disclose the new aircraft early next year when the service begins laying out its budget requests for the 2023 fiscal year. Even after the new aircraft are formally disclosed, Kendall said details about the drones will be kept secret.

“These will be acknowledged classified programs,” Kendall said, “but I am going to try to get them started in ‘23.”

Kendall’s confirmation that the new drones will work alongside fighter jets and bombers gives some clues about how they’re being developed. Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group aerospace market analysis firm, told Politico that Kendall’s comments indicate the new drones are being developed as part of the “loyal wingman” program.

The concept behind the “loyal wingman” program is to develop UAVs that can be linked to a parent aircraft. The drones will rely on artificial intelligence to help them fly alongside their parent aircraft and then to operate on their own to take on tasks that may be too dangerous for manned aircraft.

The Air Force did not include funding for the “loyal wingman” program in their budget request for 2022. Aboulafia said that delay in funding may have been the result of the service reevaluating how the “loyal wingman” aircraft will deploy.

Aboulafia raised the possibility that the “loyal wingman” drones may be deployed in the air from another aircraft.

“Maybe they’re considering alternative plans, even air deployment … which would push things down to a smaller air vehicle,” Aboulafia told the news outlet.

The delay may also be an indication that the U.S. will partner with the United Kingdom and Australia on the drone project. Both the U.K. and Australia are already pursuing similar drone programs.

According to Politico, Kendall’s revelation about the two new drones is a strong indication the service will shift more focus to autonomous weapons systems in its effort to compete with China’s rapidly developing military capabilities.

During a Sunday panel discussion at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Kendall said his focus going forward is on developing weapons that “threaten China.”

“We have a number of assets that, the way I put it when I did the budget review when I first came into office was, ‘if it doesn’t threaten China, why do are we doing it,'” Kendall said.

“We have a number of assets that we acquired that were very useful in the counter insurgencies that we’ve been fighting for the last 20 years, that are not all that threatening to China, and we have to refocus.”

Kendall said aircraft like Reaper drones, some C-130 variants, tanker aircraft and A-10 attack aircraft have been useful for the Air Force, “But they’re aging and their utility against the pacing challenge is very limited.”