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In Private Wargame, Low-Cost CCAs Prove Most Popular

collaborative combat aircraft

A small CCA, with characteristics resembling DARPA’s air-launched LongShot concept, was chosen by wargame participants to overwhelm China’s numerical and qualitative airpower advantage on Day 1.

Credit: DARPA

In the first day of a theoretical air war against China at the end of this decade, the picture for the U.S. Air Force is not pretty. A next-generation fighter now in the final phase of a competitive selection process would not be available for a few more years. Even worse, a Chinese air force operating close to home boasts a fleet with advantages in numbers and perhaps quality in certain key capabilities.

To regain the advantage, U.S. airpower strategists are turning to a new kind of weapon system: Collaborative combat aircraft (CCA). By augmenting American fighter and bomber strength, this family of uncrewed air vehicles with advanced autonomy might help the U.S. offset China’s numerical and quality advantages.

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But what is a CCA? What weapons and sensors should they carry? What should be their range? Should they be air-launched by fighters and bombers or take off from the ground, either on their own power or assisted by rockets? As U.S. Air Force strategists seek answers to those questions internally, the results will drive the size, shape and, above all, cost of the new CCA fleet.

As the official Air Force analysis continues behind closed doors, the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies has addressed the dearth of public information on the topic, releasing the results of a recent unclassified wargame performed by a group of military and industry experts.

In the Mitchell wargame, a clear theme emerged: Experts preferred to use larger numbers of the cheapest, air-launched CCAs rather than a handful of far more expensive models boasting exquisite capabilities.

“The expendability of [the lowest-cost CCAs] fundamentally changed how we thought about risk and the mission sets,” says Heather Penney, a senior resident fellow at the institute who led one of the teams in the wargame. “And that allowed us to really exploit the disruptive capabilities they offered.”

Given a menu of 10 types of CCA with unique capabilities, Mitchell’s selected experts preferred a model named “CCA-5” to augment Lockheed Martin F-35As and F-22s for the counter-air mission on Day 1 of the air war. Bearing a clear resemblance to the DARPA-funded General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.’s LongShot aircraft, CCA-5 was sketched for the wargame with a basic level of stealth, range greater than 650 nm, payload of two air-to-air missiles and passive targeting sensor. It could be launched by another aircraft or from the ground using rockets. CCA-5 ranked among the three cheapest options on the menu, with a price of $2-15 million each.

In the scenario, three Boeing B-52s each launched 10 CCA-5s, while 10 Boeing F-15EXs launched another two each. Another 60 rocket-assisted CCA-5s took off from ground bases. Assisted by eight F-22s and 16 F-35s, the combined force focused on targeting China’s Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne command-and-control and refueling aircraft, seeking to degrade the adversary’s “first look, first shot” capabilities and numerical advantages.

As the counter-air campaign continued beyond the first day, Mitchell’s wargame experts changed tack. Instead of overwhelming China’s air-combat enablers with mass, the experts preferred to use a smaller number of more sophisticated CCAs to continue sweeping for enemy fighters and launching strikes on enemy vessels. This decision led to a force composed of a smaller number of subsonic “CCA-3s” escorting F-22s and F-35s with a similar level of stealth, carrying six air-to-air missiles each with advanced active and passive targeting sensors.

Throughout the fictional campaign, the experts assembled by Mitchell rejected the most exquisite and expensive options: supersonic, highly stealthy CCAs costing over $40 million that can carry the most advanced anti-radiation and long-range air-to-air missiles, such as the Lockheed AIM-260.

“As you go up in functionality, you go down in numbers available, so you become more risk-averse,” says Mark Gunzinger, director of future concepts and capabilities at the institute.

The organizers at Mitchell acknowledge the limitations of the wargame’s realism. Many critical factors—sufficient and reliable autonomy, robust communications networks and sufficient logistics support—were assumed as the scenario played out, allowing the experts to focus on specific questions. The scenario also assumed that China will still lack a similar CCA capability by the end of the decade.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.