In the not-too-distant future, the face of American airpower will dramatically shift away from a relatively few highly capable and crewed platforms and toward an overwhelming avalanche of unmanned systems, ranging from single-use munitions all the way to multi-million dollar multi-role UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles).
With new initiatives underway within the Pentagon to rapidly field thousands of drones the United States is now looking to return to the World War II methodology of peace through superior numbers. In order to do so, American Defense officials are aiming to push the boundaries of what we’ve commonly seen as science fiction, turning over vast portions of the warfighting enterprise to rapidly advancing, and often AI-enabled, robots.
A little while back, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced the Pentagon’s Replicator Initiative, which aims to field “multiple thousands” of low-cost drones operating in air, land, and sea within the next two years, but remarkably, without requesting any additional funding. Instead of seeing this as a new program, Replicator might be better thought of as a new philosophy – steering the priorities of new acquisition efforts toward what the U.S. Air Force has long called, “affordable mass.”
“Replicator is not a new program of record,” Hicks explained. “We’re not creating a new bureaucracy and we will not be asking for new money in [fiscal 2024]. Not all problems need new money.”
While this concept seems to go hand in hand with the Air Force’s recent efforts to develop and field highly capable Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCAs), or AI-enabled drones, to fly alongside its most advanced fighters into combat, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall was quick to point out that CCA is not a part of the Replicator effort.
This is almost certainly because, as Hicks laid out, Replicator aims to field a large volume of inexpensive drones with a shelf life of just a few years each, whereas the Air Force’s CCA program aims to field extremely capable UCAVs with modular payloads and at least some degree of stealth. In other words, the CCA program is looking to field far more expensive platforms than Replicator, but the one thing these efforts have in common, of course, is a transition away from manpower as a measure of military might.
The truth is, despite the significant reach of the Replicator initiative, this transition is already well underway with or without it.
THE US MILITARY HAS BEEN SHRINKING FOR DECADES
Despite America’s massive defense expenditures, the number of warships, fighter planes, and similar platforms in the U.S. arsenal has been steadily decreasing for decades now. This has come, in large part, thanks to rapid advances in a variety of technologies that allow fewer platforms to fill multiple roles. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the realm of tactical aircraft.
On the flight decks of America’s aircraft carriers, for instance, we’ve seen a rapid consolidation of airframes since the end of World War II, with specialized bombers, attack aircraft, reconnaissance platforms, and more being replaced by more broadly capable fighters. Even the Navy’s primary electronic attack aircraft today, the EA-18G Growler, is fundamentally a fighter as it shares an airframe with the F/A-18 Super Hornet and carries air-to-air missiles for self-defense.
America’s multi-role approach to air warfare has allowed it to focus on fielding some of the most advanced and broadly capable tactical aircraft ever to take to the skies, each equipped to fly a multitude of missions depending on operational requirements. There’s no denying this has been an extremely cost-effective approach to power projection throughout the asymmetric conflicts of recent decades, but in a high-end fight, it creates problems. No matter how multi-role your aircraft is, it can still only be in one place at one time… and with fewer platforms than ever, losing a single modern fighter represents a much more significant loss than in past eras.
As Marine aviator Dennis Santare and Navy veteran Chris Trost wrote for the Oliver Wyman consultancy earlier this year, “Superior technology is an advantage the United States military has historically leveraged to deter, fight, and win wars. But it’s not just advanced weaponry that has helped us fend off enemies. Our strength has also depended on our ability to mass combat power to overwhelm adversaries.”
Building a single F-35C, the carrier-capable iteration of the stealth fighter, requires a jaw-dropping 60,121 combined man-hours, according to a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office. Conversely, it was reported during World War II that 20 carrier-capable F4U Corsair fighters could be built in 240,000 man-hours, which shakes out to approximately 12,000 man-hours per carrier fighter. In other words, takes approximately five times the man-hours to replace a modern carrier fighter than it would have 80 years ago.
By the end of World War II, the United States was operating nearly 300,000 military aircraft of all sorts, today, that number has dwindled to fewer than 14,000.
When you consider the broad range of capabilities delivered by America’s modern multi-role fighters, this disparity certainly makes sense, but that doesn’t change the problem this shift represents. America’s platforms may be incredibly capable, but they’re extremely expensive, hard to replace, and exist in too few numbers to withstand a large-scale conflict against a near-peer. And that’s before you consider the potential losses of aviators and crews, or longstanding concerns about readiness rates among America’s most advanced systems.
The solution, the Pentagon has assessed, is not a complete return to the old-school approach of rapidly fielding relatively inexpensive crewed aircraft and accepting that a large volume of those platforms, and their pilots, will be lost. Instead, Uncle Sam is now looking to a fusion of doctrines, combining even more modern and advanced platforms like the forthcoming Next Generation Air Dominance and F/A-XX fighters with a large volume of cheaper, more specialized drones that can be lost and replaced without overwhelming American budgets or production infrastructure.
INEXPENSIVE, ‘ATTRITABLE’ AIRPOWER
The Air Force has been using the word attritable to describe platforms that are inexpensive enough to accept high levels of risk in combat for years now, seemingly intent on turning the hair of copy-editors the world over prematurely grey. But even if the word choices leave something to be desired, the concept itself could provide the United States with a massive leap in capability in both the short and long term.
This concept is embodied by platforms like the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie – a low-cost and low-observable UCAV that’s capable of carrying a 600-pound internal payload while flying at high-subsonic speeds at altitudes as high as 45,000 feet and to ranges as far as 3,000 nautical miles (around 3,450 miles). The capabilities the Valkyrie brings to bear are certainly potent, but its most impressive feat is its cost. The most capable top-of-the-line Valkyries are projected to cost just $6.5 million each, less than one hundredth the cost of a B-21 Raider and less than a tenth of the cost of an F-35.
In fact, a single XQ-58A Valkyrie costs only slightly more than a single AGM-88G anti-radiation missile used by American fighters to take out enemy air defense radar arrays. And, it goes without saying that missiles can only be used once. Kratos officials have gone on record to say that if orders exceed 50 airframes, costs may be reduced to as little as $4 million per Valkyrie, and if production runs to 100 airframes or more, the unit price could drop to just $2 million.
That would put these low observable UCAVs on a pretty equal financial footing with America’s current preferred form of kinetic diplomacy, the Tomahawk cruise missile.
“The category/class called ‘attritable aircraft’ really refers to an affordability objective solution to a UAV problem/need without an expectation for the aircraft to be in service forever. This class seeks an optimization of capability versus cost and life. It’s certainly not the intent to use these assets once and throw them away, but they are also not intended to remain in service for 100 years like the B-52 for example,” explained Steve Fendley, president of Kratos’ Unmanned Systems Division.
But as cost-effective as the Valkyrie may ultimately be, others will be far cheaper. Last year, for instance, it was announced that another Kratos drone, the MQM-178 Firejet-based Air Wolf, which started out as a target drone for air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles, is being tested for a wide variety of battlefield roles, including deploying Switchblade loitering munitions to expand sensor reach and engage targets on the drone’s behalf.
At just about $450,000 a piece, these low-cost UCAVs are launched via pneumatic catapult, giving them exceedingly small logistical footprints to be deployed from ground or even ship-based launchers.
Other efforts, like the X-61A Gremlin, are designed to be deployed and recovered by airborne cargo aircraft like the C-130 Hercules, but not everything about this new approach to affordable mass is reusable.