The Future of Collaborative Combat Aircraft

GA-ASI's Gambit represents a new concept in unmanned combat aircraft. (Image: GA-ASI)

The U.S. Air Force boasts the finest combat aircraft and pilots in the world, but even they are going to need help preserving air dominance in the coming decades. Most experts agree that a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft — keeping human pilots and support operators in the loop while adding more autonomy, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning — is our near-term future.

There’s no question that the work of air superiority is getting more difficult. Hostile stealth fighters are proliferating. New-generation integrated air defense systems are improving their ability to detect American and allied aircraft. Sophisticated adversaries want to push the joint force ever farther from contested territory and sharpen their ability to deny it if entered. All this challenges the Air Force, its sibling services, and their international allies to find new and innovative ways to outfly the enemy.

The symbol of the new era is the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), a bold new type of warplane that will reshape the way the Air Force and others do their work. One such CCA, called "Gambit," is built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., (GA-ASI).

The future of air power pairs large numbers of collaborative, mission-focused, and cost-imposing autonomous unmanned aircraft alongside the most potent human-crewed fighters of today and tomorrow. A pilot in an F-35 Lightning II or Next-Generation Air Dominance System needs multiple unmanned teammates to provide magazine depth or surveil the battlespace ahead, evade detection, relay their findings, and, if necessary, take action on their own or in concert with the rest of the force. This not only presents a challenge in aerospace design, it also requires cutting-edge software that harnesses high levels of autonomy, machine learning, and artificial intelligence and is seamless to use for pilots, commanders, and supporting elements. Additionally, future systems require the technical and manufacturing know-how to build them without breaking the bank.

Gambit is a suite of aircraft with multiple variants that can be finely tuned for the most particular and demanding missions. This starts with a core platform that encapsulates a single set of common hardware: landing gear, baseline avionics, chassis, and other essential functions. A common Gambit Core accounts for roughly 70 percent of the price among the various models, providing an economy of scale to help lower costs, increase interoperability, and enhance or accelerate the development of variants. In other words, Gambit Core establishes a common baseline, then takes on its mission and identity with the addition of different engines, fuselages, wings, and other internal and external characteristics.

Gambit 1 is a nimble sensing platform optimized for long endurance. The aircraft can accompany other unmanned aircraft or join with human-crewed aircraft on the leading edge of a strike package, serving as the initial eyes and ears for the air group. The weight savings from high aspect wings and a fuel-optimized engine means the aircraft can spend more time patrolling a given box of airspace to provide early warning or surveillance.

Gambit 2 adds the provision for air-to-air weapons. The characteristic outer mold line means the aircraft has less endurance than its pure play reconnaissance sibling. But it more than makes up for that with a newfound ability to hold even advanced hostile aircraft at risk.

One virtue of fielding multiple collaborative aircraft is that they can sense and observe from multiple perspectives. Imagine a trio of Gambit 2 aircraft looking toward an enemy coastline from different altitudes at different angles. One of them detects an inbound hostile stealthy fighter. Gambit 2 immediately can cue its wingmen onto the target with their own sensors and confirm the track generated by the first one. All this might take place via infrared, meaning no telltale radio frequency emissions to tip off the enemy. The hostile fighter’s front aspect is designed to defeat radar returns, but that becomes irrelevant when it’s being tracked this way and from two or three different perspectives.

This trio of Gambit 2 aircraft could do any number of things. They could alert human-piloted fighters farther away with a burst transmission. They could wave off to keep clear of the hostile fighter. They could attack with their own weapons using AI and machine learning to harass and trap the hostile fighter. Whatever happens, the first detection and first actions involve aircraft with no precious human pilots aboard, which gives the human crews who are in the area valuable early warning and decision space. These disruptive tactics will define the fight between man and machine—or machine versus machine—in the future.

Gambit 3 looks much like Gambit 2, only optimized for a complex adversary air role. This aircraft will support sorties against some of the most capable U.S. systems, including U.S. integrated air defense systems, along with other current 5th-generation tactical air assets. This is another way in which unmanned autonomous aircraft offer reduced operations and sustainment costs for training warfighters. Gambit 3 supports complex multi-ship adversary air tactics in a way no human-crewed aircraft could, learning from each engagement and adapting their tactics. This breed of Gambit offsets significant training costs by providing U.S. assets 5th-generation sensor technology without burning up F-35 and F-22 fleet hours.

Gambit 4 is a combat reconnaissance-focused model with no tail and swept wings. This aircraft is optimized for long-endurance missions of a specialized nature, leveraging low-observable elements and other advanced systems for avoiding enemy detection.

The Gambit series is the result of decades of defense aerospace leadership in advanced unmanned aircraft, but there’s much more to it than simply designing and building the hardware.

There is also aerospace software, control systems, human-machine interfaces, and other technologies that are just as essential in making the aircraft work with a high degree of autonomy. New mesh-networked data links will make it more difficult than ever to jam the signals commanding these unmanned aircraft. Plus, it’s entirely possible for the aircraft to severely minimize their radio connectivity. When they do much of the sensing, tracking, and interpreting themselves, they only need to come up on the air to report what they’ve found or accept orders from their human teammates utilizing short bursts, as needed, to minimize the likelihood of detection or jamming.