Image: US Air Force
The future of air combat is small, cheap and disposable. That is, if a bunch of US Air Force scientists get their way.In early May 2017, the Air Force Research Laboratories—the flying branch's Ohio-based science wing—released the first photo of a stealthy, weapons-capable robotic jet that just might become America's next major warplane.The Low Cost Attritable Aircraft, or LCAA, has been in a development since July 2016. That's when AFRL awarded Kratos, a San Diego drone-maker, a $41-million contract to work alongside the labs to design and demonstrate what the government described as a "high-speed, long-range, low-cost, limited-life strike unmanned aerial system."
Less than a year later, Kratos had produced at least one copy of the new drone, using its existing XQ-222 concept as a starting point. AFRL first began talking about the LCAA during a May 9, 2017 conference at the labs' headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. A little over a week later, the Defense Department circulated the first public photo of the roughly 30-foot-long drone.The LCAA has sharply-swept wings, a narrow air intake, panels with sawtooth-like edges and a silvery, likely radar-absorbing paint job—all hallmarks of stealth aircraft. The LCAA could prove as difficult to detect as the Air Force's F-22 and F-35 manned stealth fighters are. But that's not what's really special about the drone.
What's special is its price. AFRL expects each LCAA to cost just $3 million. For comparison, a single F-35 costs around $100 million, not counting research and development. An F-22 costs around $150 million.The high prices of the manned fighters have limited how many the Air Force can afford. The flying branch got just 187 combat-capable F-22s before production ended in 2012—fewer than half of what it wanted. The Air Force planned to be buying up to a hundred F-35s per year, but has only been able to budget for a few dozen annually.The LCAA could help to make up the shortfall. "If you team up a bunch of these aircraft with an F-35 or an F-22 or some of our surveillance assets, you'd basically be able to cover more space at a lower cost point," Bill Baron, manger of the LCAA project, told wire service McClatchy at the Ohio conference.
Separately, AFRL is working on drone-control systems that can be installed in pretty much any airplane. The labs recently sent robotic F-16s into mock combat alongside F-16s with human pilots aboard. The pilots commanded the drone fighters to perform maneuvers and attacks. The drones' software allowed them to follow their human minders, automatically avoid enemy defenses and attack targets.The same control systems could allows LCAA drones to fight alongside manned stealth fighters.And at $3 million per drone, the Air Force could theoretically afford to quickly buy hundreds and hundreds of LCAAs—and send them into combat with reckless abandon. Hence the term "attritable" in the LCAA's project name. "Attrit" is a fancy military synonym for "destroy.""The appeal of an unmanned system is that you can use it in ways that you wouldn't a manned plane, such as sending it on more dangerous missions where you don't mind it being shot down," P.W. Singer, a strategist at the New American Foundation in Washington, D.C. and author of the military thriller Ghost Fleet, told Motherboard. "But if it is too expensive, then even if it is unmanned you won't use it disposably—you literally can't afford to lose them."The two keys to keeping down the LCAA's cost are its simplicity and the production line. "The program will use a product line approach distinguished by continual aircraft design and capability refresh to incorporate emerging technologies in a timely and cost-effective manner," the Defense Department stated. "LCAA can be manufactured at a high rate, reducing touch labor and ultimately reducing cost."
In other words, AFRL wants the government to set up and fund non-stop, automated production of the LCAA at Kratos' factory. Every time the military or industry develops a new widget—say, a slightly better sensor or more efficient engine or new radar-absorbing paint—Kratos adds the enhancements to new drones without stopping the assembly line. Evolution, not revolution.It could also help that the LCAA is designed to last just a few years, rather than decades like the F-22 and F-35. That means that production could be a little sloppier. And there'd no need for long-term maintenance. "LCAA are not built for longevity," the Pentagon stated."Exciting stuff" is how Singer described the LCAA and its potential to revolutionize how the Air Force wages war.But as the small, disposable drone enters testing, there's a risk that the Air Force could ruin its critical features—its simplicity and cheapness. "Technocrats have a tendency to undervalue the operational impact of systems like this, writing them off or dismissing them as toys or 'hobby shop' projects," Dan Ward, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and author of The Simplicity Cycle, told Motherboard."The other tendency is to add new features and make it more complicated in the name of improving it. If we're not careful, these additions will end up making the thing heavier, larger, more expensive, more complicated and more fragile rather than making it more effective in accomplishing its mission."Right now, the LCAA is still experimental and no firm timeline has been established for its potential deployment, but if and when it arrives, it seems poised to usher in a new era of more expendable drone warfare.Subscribe to Science Solved It, Motherboard's new show about the greatest mysteries that were solved by science.