Air Force Secretary to Go Airborne in AI-Operated Jet

Frank Kendall to enter the cockpit of F-16 that has been converted for drone flight
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 10, 2024 9:35 AM CDT
Air Force Secretary Plans a Ride in an AI-Operated Jet
The Air Force is betting a large part of its future air warfare on a fleet of more than 1,000 autonomously operated combat aircraft, and later this spring it’s top civilian leader is planning to climb into one of those AI-operated warplanes and let it take him airborne.   (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

The Air Force is betting a large part of its future air warfare on a fleet of more than 1,000 autonomously operated drones, and later this spring its top civilian leader plans to climb into an artificial intelligence-operated warplane and let it take him airborne. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told senators on Tuesday at a hearing on the service's 2025 budget that he will enter the cockpit of one of the F-16s that the service has converted for drone flight to see for himself how the AI-controlled plane performs in the air. Standout details from the AP:

  • Key lines: "There will be a pilot with me who will just be watching, as I will be, as the autonomous technology works," Kendall told the Senate Appropriations Committee defense panel members. "Hopefully neither he or I will be needed to fly the airplane."
  • The vision: The Air Force began planning for its fleet of collaborative combat aircraft, or CCAs, several years ago, and it envisions a scenario in which one piloted jet will be able to quarterback multiple AI-driven, responsive drones, which the service calls "loyal wingmen."
  • The China angle: The fleet is being designed specifically with future warfare, and potentially a conflict with China, in mind. China has rapidly modernized its anti-access capabilities as more sophisticated air defense systems make it risky to send manned crews too close. Drone aircraft could augment the service's ability to breach those defenses, and they are envisioned to provide support in a variety of future missions such as surveillance or jamming.
  • The cost: The Air Force requested $559 million in the 2025 budget to continue research and development of the future CCA air system. The drone fleet is also expected to be cheaper than developing new manned jets, Kendall said. The current goal is to have each cost about a quarter to a third of what an F-35 fighter costs now, or about $20 million apiece.
  • What's not known: The service has been tight-lipped on what the fleet of drones will look like in size or platform, whether they will be full-size warplanes or something smaller. Kendall said the converted F-16 test flight will be done for him to observe the technology behind the future fleet.
(More drones stories.)

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