Air Force Picks Anduril And General Atomics To Build And Test Collaborative Combat Aircraft

The renderings of the General Atomics CCA concept based on the XQ-67 family (upper left) and Anduril's Fury (bottom right) in a single image (Credit: The Aviationist using GA-ASI and Anduril artworks)

The U.S. Air Force has awarded the two companies the funding for detailed designs, manufacture, and testing of production representative test articles under the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program.

The Air Force made the decision to continue funding Anduril and General Atomics for the next phase of the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program, the Department of the AF announced on Apr. 24, 2024.

The two companies will now build production-representative CCA vehicles, and test-flight them, whereas Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, that also competed in the program, but were not selected, will continue to be part of the broader industry partner vendor pool consisting of more than 20 companies to compete for future efforts, including future production contracts.

Here’s a public statement released by the Department of the Air Force:

“Just over two years ago, we announced our intent, as part of our Operational Imperatives, to pursue collaborative combat aircraft. Now, following the enactment of the fiscal year 2024 budget, we’re exercising option awards to two companies to construct production representative test articles. The progress we’ve made is a testament to the invaluable collaboration with industry, whose investment alongside the Air Force has propelled this initiative forward. It’s truly encouraging to witness the rapid execution of this program,” said Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall.

“We executed an acquisition and funding strategy for CCA with early operator, technologist, acquirer, and industry teaming to quickly iterate requirements given our fielding timelines. Continuous competition is a cornerstone at every stage of this program. The transparency and teamwork between industry and government really accelerated how quickly we could mature the CCA program,” Kendall said.

“As we navigate the next phase of CCA development, our collaboration with both current and potential industry partners remains pivotal. Their expertise, innovation, and resources are instrumental in driving this initiative forward, ensuring its success and impact on future operations,” said Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Andrew Hunter.

The DAF is on track to make a competitive production decision for the first increment of CCA in fiscal year 2026 and field a fully operational capability before the end of the decade. The DAF’s option exercise decision does not exclude any of the vendors from competing for the future Increment 1 production contract.

The DAF is exploring international partnerships, to include potential Foreign Military Sales, as part of the CCA program.  These partnerships will help provide further affordable mass at scale while driving horizontal integration and interoperability across our international partnerships.

Planning for CCA Increment 2 development is also ongoing, with initial activities starting later this year. All current and potential future industry partners from the CCA vendor pool will compete for this follow-on effort.

The CCA program aims to deliver at least 1,000 CCAs, prioritizing cost-effective scalability. With air superiority pivotal to America’s military dominance for more than 70 years, CCA offers expanded fighter capacity (affordable mass) at reduced costs and adaptable timelines.

The CCA program

The CCA program aims to develop autonomous unmanned aircraft that will cooperate in the “loyal wingman” role with fifth- and sixth-generation combat aircraft as part of manned-unmanned teaming concepts. The U.S. Air Force wants to procure 200 NGAD fighters along with 1,000 CCA that will cooperate in the “loyal wingman” role with the sixth-generation combat aircraft. While each NGAD aircraft is expected to hundreds of millions of dollars, the CCA are designed to cost “in the order of a quarter or a third” of the current unit cost of an F-35.

The anticipated CCA’s price is between $20.6 million and $27.5 million. This is less than the price of a MQ-9 Reaper, which costs roughly $32 million. Even if the cost is “small”, the CCA are not considered expendable or attritable, but rather “systems that you can accept losses of a fraction of them and not have a big operational impact”.

The Air Force is currently refining the specifications for the CCA program, particularly regarding the range and payload, to align with the operational needs of drones supporting crewed fighters. It’s established that CCAs will have a modular design, with some configured for weaponry and others for additional systems.

The potential involvement of international partners, like Australia and Japan, in the Increment 2 is still possible as confirmed by the DAF statement, although details remain limited.

Increment 2 will introduce a new design, potentially a more advanced asset, with requirements distinct from the initial phase. While the focus for Increment 1 is swift production, subsequent increments will emphasize increased autonomy and expanded capabilities, according to Air Force Service Acquisition Executive Andrew Hunter.

The reactions of the two selected companies

“There is no time to waste on business as usual. With the CCA program, Secretary Kendall and the Air Force have embraced a fast-moving, forward-looking approach to field autonomous systems at speed and scale,” said Brian Schimpf, Anduril’s CEO and Co-Founder in a statement released by the company. “We are honored to be selected for this unprecedented opportunity, which signals a demand for continued expansion of the defense industrial base. Anduril is proud to pave the way for other non-traditional defense companies to compete and deliver on large scale programs.”

“Anduril’s work on this program is just beginning,” said Jason Levin, Senior Vice President of Anduril’s Air Dominance & Strike Division. “U.S. and allied success in the future requires CCAs to be delivered at a speed, cost, and scale to beat the pacing threat. We look forward to continuing our partnership with the U.S. Air Force to deliver this critical capability to our Airmen as quickly as possible.”

“The CCA program redefines the future of aviation and will shape the USAF acquisition model to deliver affordable combat mass to the warfighter at the speed of relevancy,” said Mike Atwood, Vice President of Advanced Programs for GA-ASI.

“Throughout our 30-year history, GA-ASI has been at the forefront of rapidly advancing unmanned aircraft systems that support our warfighters,” said GA-ASI President David R. Alexander following the announcement. “The USAF is moving forward with GA-ASI due to our focused commitment to unmanned air-to-air combat operations and unmatched UAS experience, ensuring the production of the CCA aircraft at scale to deliver affordable combat mass for the warfighter.”

General Atomics said that in February 2024, GA-ASI achieved a significant milestone by conducting the inaugural flight of the XQ-67A CCA prototype aircraft. “This successful flight validated the innovative “genus/species” concept introduced by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) within the framework of the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Platform Sharing (LCAAPS) initiative. Under this program, multiple aircraft variants are developed using a common core chassis. Subsequent to its maiden flight, the CCA prototype has undergone two additional successful test flights, marking a promising start to the production and flight testing phase. GA-ASI’s design for CCA production is derived from the XQ-67A Off-Board Sensing Station, an earlier development by GA-ASI in collaboration with the AFRL.”

The company added: “In addition to the CCA contract, GA-ASI plans to carry out a sequence of autonomy and mission system evaluations on the MQ-20 Avenger UAS and XQ-67A. This initiative aims to expedite the deployment of operational autonomy. These live flight assessments will further showcase the capability of the complete mission system to facilitate the advancement of the U.S. Air Force Autonomous Collaborative Platforms (ACP).”

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.