Pentagon plans pilotless jets using AI to deter China

Pilotless jet fighters that can fly 30 feet above the ground to their targets

By Agencies
March 05, 2024
This image shows Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat. —BOEING Website

WASHINGTON: Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat is one of five contenders for the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft program.


Pilotless jet fighters that can fly 30 feet above the ground to their targets or straight towards a barrage of enemy missiles are being developed by the US Air Force to help deter China.

The soaring cost of existing military aircraft and advances in flying software have the Air Force pivoting towards a new generation of pilotless jets to bolster a fleet that its leaders say is the smallest and oldest since it became a separate service in 1947.

The Air Force wants at least 1,000 of the mini-fighters now being developed, including hundreds within five years. They would escort and protect crewed aircraft such as the F-35 and the new B-21 bomber, carry their own weapons to attack other planes and targets on the ground and act as scouts and communications hubs in the sky.

The drones, known as Collaborative Combat Aircraft, or CCAs, are part of a $6 billion program being pursued by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and newcomer Anduril Industries. The Pentagon plans by the summer to choose two of the companies to start building the jets.

The Air Force has had big drones for years. General Atomics’ Reapers and Predators have been extensively used to fire missiles in the Middle East, piloted remotely. Black Hawk helicopters and F-16 fighters also have been flown autonomously.

Small drones have transformed the battlefields over the relatively small distances in Ukraine and parts of the Middle East, but larger jet-powered versions are viewed as crucial to tackle the vast distances in the western Pacific. “They offer a lot of things that traditional crewed fighter planes just aren’t designed to do,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.

Small inexpensive “off the shelf” drones like those Ukraine is using against Russia, and Hamas is deploying against Israel, are transforming modern warfare. To train American soldiers to counter this threat, the US military recently opened a specialized drone warfare school.

Only one of the five contenders—Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat—has flown publicly, and the Royal Australian Air Force has ordered the plane. Anduril has released photos of its in-development Fury, while General Atomics has published renderings of its Gambit series. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, both steeped in highly-classified programs, have kept their jets under wraps.

The Ghost Bat and the Fury are smaller than existing fighters, between 20 feet and 30 feet in length—half the size of the Lockheed Martin-made F-16, the world’s most ubiquitous combat aircraft. The planes will be able to fly just below the speed of sound, carrying missiles and other weapons to fire at enemy aircraft and targets on the ground, including ships, according to Air Force specifications.

The emergence of the new jets reflects strides made in flying software, using artificial intelligence to build programs based on thousands of hours of combat flying. The technology that allowed planes to be piloted from the ground has been superseded with software allowing planes to fly autonomously and adapt to changing conditions in combat.

“We’re much, much more advanced now,” said Brandon Tseng, founder and president of Shield AI, which builds flying software and its own drones.

The Ghost Bat provides a test bed for the autonomous flying targeted by the US Air Force. Designed to fly with crewed jets and on pre-programmed missions, it has a nose cone that can be swapped out with different equipment.

San Diego-based Shield AI is one of a new breed of privately backed companies seeking bigger Pentagon contracts. It developed software that helped an uncrewed F-16 programmed with AI to regularly beat some of the best Air Force and Navy pilots in simulated dogfights as part of a Pentagon-backed test. Tseng wants its software on the planned new jet drones.

The Air Force wants to tap in to the technology, allowing pilots of planes including the F-35, F-22 and B-21 bomber to control the new drones remotely on missions from their cockpits. Ground controllers also could handle as many as 10 of the drones, while others could be pre-programed to fly in swarms, overwhelming enemy defenses or confusing them to draw fire.

The lack of crew allows the drones to fly riskier maneuvers that would be physically impossible for a pilot to endure, said Air Force officials and flying-software developers. Shield AI’s Tseng said his company’s software offers the ability for jets to skim the ground at 600 miles an hour.

It should also make them cheaper, said the Air Force and defense executives. The drones are intended to be expendable if necessary, flying one or perhaps a handful of missions, allowing them to be built with less expensive parts.

The Air Force is targeting a price between $20 million and $30 million for each jet, though industry executives expect it to eventually come down to around $10 million or less. That compares with around $100 million for an F-35 or with new B-21 bombers that carry a price tag of more than $750 million.

The planned cost and efforts to have hundreds flying by 2029 makes the CCA program a key test of the Defense Department’s efforts to break from years of late and over-budget military programs. New programs are tougher to launch than those with established supply chains, defense-industry executives said. Boeing’s military-aircraft programs are struggling; Lockheed Martin has dozens of F-35s parked that the Pentagon refuses to accept until software fixes are completed; and Northrop Grumman has faced challenges on some programs.

Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter said the CCA program takes lessons from past programs that have struggled to harness new technology, notably the F-35 program. The first CCAs are intended to be stripped-down models, keeping costs low and introducing new technology when it is ready, rather than while it is still being tested.

The Air Force plan would require annual production of around 100 of the jet drones, far higher than General Atomics’ current lineup, while Anduril hasn’t produced aircraft at such scale.

Companies bidding for the CCA contract are also being told to minimize complexity on their jets, including only what is required for missions rather than every eventuality. The average Pentagon program takes seven years from contract award until service entry. The F-35 took twice that, but only five years is being allotted for the CCA.

Air Force officials said one obstacle to broader adoption of uncrewed jets is starting to erode: the pilots themselves. The options of piloting drones from the cockpit, remotely from the ground or autonomously with preplanned flight programs has reduced resistance among seasoned fliers. Newer recruits brought up on videogames have also tipped the balance in favor of wider adoption of uncrewed flying. “We’re eager to get them because they’re gonna save our lives,” said Air Force Secretary Kendall of the new drones.