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Companies compete over new Pentagon drone project

A drone (Dreamstime/TNS)
June 24, 2024

Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to change the face of modern warfare as five companies compete for a contract to supply AI-guided drones to the U.S. Air Force (USAF). Part of the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), USAF plans to introduce at least 1,000 drones (CCAs) to fly in collaboration with pilots.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall detailed the plans during his keynote speech “One Team, One Fight” at the 2023 Air Force Association (AFA) Warfare Symposium, stating, “CCAs will dramatically improve the performance of our crude aircraft and significantly reduce the risk to our pilots,” according to Air and Space Forces Magazine.

Drones equipped with weapons capabilities are intended to both complement and assist manned aircraft missions, providing cover, scouting, and defense support. The project has captured the interest of several large companies. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, and Anduril Industries have all placed bids to develop the CCAs.

General Atomics previously supplied Reaper and Predator drones, which were deployed in military operations in the Middle East.

Anduril Industries is a newcomer to the field, founded in 2017 by Palmer Luckey. Luckey founded Oculus VR before leaving the company to establish Anduril with investors from SpaceX and Palantir Technologies, Inc.

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The addition of the drones is seen as a low-cost measure that would rapidly increase the USAF’s capability to meet the capabilities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC.) Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks dubbed the initiative “Replicator” during her remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense Conference last year.

“Replicator is meant to help us overcome the PRC’s biggest advantage, which is mass,” she said. “More ships. More missiles. More people.”

“To stay ahead, we’re going to create a new state of the art — just as America has before — leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains — which are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire and can be changed, updated or improved with substantially shorter lead times,” Hicks continued.

Defense News reported that contracts are predicted to be finalized for fiscal year 2025, with either two or three of the competing companies awarded to build and provide the drones.

General Atomics and Anduril Industries have already showcased existing AI drones in their bid to win the contract, while Lockheed Martin integrated AI into existing training planes. Boeing showcased Ghost Bat, a drone measuring 20 to 30 feet in length that has the capability to fly just under the speed of sound while covering over 2,000 nautical miles.

The drone project, intended to accompany the F-35 and new B-21 bomber, has an anticipated a completion date of five years.