The report, based on wargames run by the Mitchell Institute in counterair missions defending Taiwan against China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), demonstrates how CCAs were used as airborne sensors, decoys, jammers, or weapon launchers in cooperation with crewed aircraft like the Air Force’s 5th generation fighter F-35 and F-22 Raptor.
In comparison, the report notes that the U.S. Air Force currently “operates a force that is the oldest, smallest, and least ready in its history,” adding that it now consists primarily of 179 aging 4th-generation F-15C/Ds and 185 5th-generation F-22s.
“Instead, our military must invest in asymmetric capabilities that will disrupt the PLA’s operations, impose costs, and create the conditions for mission success. And that’s a key reason why the Air Force is developing CCA,” Mr. Gunzinger added.
CCAsMr. Gunzinger emphasized that CCAs can be more than adjuncts to crewed aircraft.
“There’s a need to break from the mindset that CCA will always operate in support of crewed aircraft,” Mr. Gunzinger said. “CCAs—that are properly designed, have the right mission systems, [and] degree of autonomy—could also be used as lead forces to disrupt enemies’ air defense operations.”
The report explains that expendable CCAs—cheaper models with less advanced features that come with a price tag of $15 million or less each—could be used as lead forces to “complicate the PLA’s counterair targeting” and “cause PLA defenses to partially deplete their air-to-air and surface-to-air weapons.”
CCAs can also work with non-stealthy combat aircraft, according to the report.
“Today, the Air Force’s non-stealthy combat aircraft may have to stand-off from Chinese air defenses at distances that are outside the range of current U.S. counterair weapons—possibly 800 [nautical miles] or more,” the report reads.
When paired with CCAs, stand-off bombers and fighters could “directly contribute to the fight for air superiority,” according to the report. Meanwhile, crewed combat aircraft can become more lethal when paired with CCAs.
“Using CCA as sensors and shooters could also reduce the need for crewed fighters to activate their radar, open their weapons bay doors, or perform other actions that would temporarily reduce their stealthy signature,” the report says. “This would help reduce crewed aircraft attrition rates, which has a force-multiplying effect over the course of an air campaign.”
The report also highlights how CCAs can potentially be designed so that they are launched from either short runaways or no runways, meaning they can be stationed in many different locations, creating a “more dispersed, resilient forward posture.” Air-launching CCAs can have longer ranges since they don’t need to consume fuel to take off or climb to an operational altitude.
“Because uncrewed CCA may not need to fly as frequently as crewed aircraft, they could be postured in forward locations along the Pacific’s First Island Chain like other pre-positioned materiel,” the report says.
“Forward posturing CCA in this way could help the Air Force sustain its initial combat pulses to defeat Chinese aggression and reduce reliance on long-range supply chains that will be at risk of attack.”
CostsExperts taking part in the wargames “unanimously agreed” that CCAs will be “additive and complementary” to crewed aircraft, according to Mr. Gunzinger.
“They’re not going to reduce the Air Force’s requirements for F-35s, NGAD, and B-21s,” Mr. Gunzinger said. “The maximum combat value will be realized by taking full advantage of the attributes that crude and uncouth uncrewed aircraft [that] each bring to the fight.”
The report offers several recommendations for the U.S. Air Force, including carrying out analyses to determine the “right tradeoffs” to balance cost and design attributes for its future fleet of CCAs.
“A CCA designed as an expendable decoy may not require as much payload capacity or the same degree of low observability as recoverable/attritable CCA that are designed to fly multiple sorties,” the report says. “Balancing CCA capabilities with their mission requirements and costs will be key to maximizing their combat utility and cost-effectiveness.”
The report recommends that the U.S. Air Force develop “innovative operating concepts for using CCA to disrupt China’s advanced IADS [integrated air defense system] and other counter-intervention operations.”
The U.S. Air Force should also develop smaller weapons to take maximum advantage of CCA payload limitations. The report explains that increasing the number of targets CCA can attack per sortie “is critical to rapidly halting a Chinese offensive.”
The report also advises the Pentagon to work with Congress to increase U.S. Air Force funding.