Redefining Drone Warfare: From Expendable Units to Affordable Mass

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In recent developments, the US Air Force has steered its focus towards a paradigm shift in drone warfare, moving from the conventional “expendable” perspective to a more sustainable “affordable mass” concept. This transformation underscores a balanced approach where cost-effectiveness meets tactical advantage.

The Evolution of Drone Terminology

The term “expendable”, once commonly associated with drones, implied that these aerial units were disposable in high-risk missions. But with technological advancements, the term has become a misrepresentation. Instead, the Air Force is embracing the “affordable mass” philosophy.

This concept encapsulates drones that are economically viable, but still potent enough to play a pivotal role in challenging missions. Simply put, it’s about getting more bang for your buck.

A senior officer intricately involved in the planning procedure highlighted that the notion of the US Air Force investing in purely “expendable” advanced drones in the forthcoming years is misleading. This sentiment underscores a conscious move away from throwaway machines to ones that offer both affordability and effectiveness.

The Voices Behind the Shift

During the 2023 Air and Space Forces Association’s Warfighting Symposium, a panel discussion broached this subject. Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, an integral figure in the Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC), emphasized the changing dynamics of drone warfare. Sharing the stage with him were notable personalities such as Brigadier General Dale White, responsible for fighter and advanced aircraft programs, David Alexander of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) Aircraft Systems Group, and Mike Benitez from Shield AI.

Focus on Collaborative Combat

The crux of their discussion revolved around the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program. The CCA program aims to procure state-of-the-art drones designed to synergize with human-piloted fighter aircraft. Initially, these drones will be heavily leveraged for air combat roles.

For those not acquainted, the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program is a subset of the larger Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative. NGAD encompasses a comprehensive plan to introduce a sixth-generation stealth fighter aircraft, bolstered by an array of cutting-edge systems.

These include avant-garde weaponry, sensors, network and battle management setups, progressive gas turbine engines, among other innovations.

The Bigger Picture

While drones that align with the “affordable mass” doctrine offer an enticing prospect for the future of aerial warfare, it’s vital to remember that cost-effectiveness should never come at the expense of mission success or safety. Drones are more than just tools; they’re strategic assets that, when deployed judiciously, can redefine the contours of a conflict.

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