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US Plans Drone Wingman Competition for Sixth-Gen Fighter

The US Air Force plans to conduct a drone wingman competition in 2024 to support its sixth-generation fighter aircraft.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed that the service is currently having “early conversations” with defense industry partners for the so-called Collaborative Combat Aircraft program.

The program seeks to field one or more types of unmanned aerial vehicles as part of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative, to which the development of six-generation fighters belongs.

Kendall envisions having as many as five drones flying alongside one sixth-generation aircraft during military operations.

The air force only needs Congressional budget approval before it starts the competition.


Autonomous wingmen play a vital role in extending the in-flight capabilities of fighter aircraft such as the F-35 and F-16.

They are positioned behind or outside the leading aircraft in a formation to perform reconnaissance and electronic warfare, or serve as decoys to draw enemy fire.

Using autonomous systems as fighter wingmen could reduce military casualties and provide better protection and assistance to a combat jet.

They could autonomously scout and map out targets, jam enemy signals and electronics, and launch their own missiles to destroy enemy assets.

A Classified Project

Kendall explained that the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program is classified, with only a few details to be released publicly.

However, the secretary already dropped several hints, specifically about the companies who will most likely serve as competitors for the program.

“We are talking to some industry partners who are already involved with the NGAD program,” he said.

Three aerospace giants, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, are believed to be competing for the country’s sixth-generation fighter under the NGAD program.

Kendall mentioned that Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat could be a good testbed for manned-unmanned aircraft teaming.

“The expectation is that these aircraft can be designed to be less survivable and less capable, but still bring an awful lot to the fight in a mixture that the enemy has a very hard time sorting out and dealing with,” he stressed.

“You can even intentionally sacrifice some of them to draw fire, if you will, to make the enemy expose himself.”

Sixth-generation fighter
Lockheed Martin’s concept of a sixth-generation fighter. Photo: Lockheed Martin

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