Three major US aerospace manufacturers have confirmed they will participate in a US Air Force (USAF) effort to develop autonomous fighter aircraft.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have all been selected for the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) programme, the companies told FlightGlobal on 26 January.

The three defence giants join start-up Anduril, which confirmed its participation in the effort on 25 January.

The CCA programme aims to deliver pilotless jet aircraft that can be produced at a relatively low cost and fielded in large numbers to supplement crewed fighters. The USAF plans to team CCAs with a secretive future sixth-generation fighter platform, known as Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD).

Uncrewed aerial vehicle maker General Atomics Aeronautical Systems was reportedly also selected for the CCA programme, but the company declines to comment.

Boeing Airpower Teaming System Loyal Wingman

Source: Boeing

Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat, the autonomous jet formerly known as Loyal Wingman, is believed to be among the candidates for the CCA programme

Another manufacturer suspected be involved in the effort – autonomous jet developer Kratos – also declined to confirm its status within the CCA programme.

However, Kratos has already delivered multiple examples of its XQ-58 Valkyrie autonomous jet to the USAF and US Marine Corps for testing and evaluation. In October, Kratos revealed it had acquired Sierra Technical Services, a California-based start-up developing a fifth-generation style autonomous platform.

”We are in discussions with a customer and hope to be under contract next year related to certain other Kratos tactical drone systems, including Thanatos,” Kratos said in November 2023. Thanatos is an uncrewed fighter under development by the company.

Exactly what role each of the four confirmed manufacturers will play within the CCA development effort remains vague. The air force is seeking a range of high-speed, autonomous aircraft that can be paired with NGAD to assist with tasks including aerial refuelling, electronic warfare or carrying extra weapons.

Several of the confirmed CCA participants are designing and testing aircraft that could fit such requirements.

Anduril is developing its Fury type, which has evolved from an adversary air training platform into what the company envisions as a fully-operational, multi-role fighter.

Boeing has two development efforts underway in the space: the MQ-28 Ghost Bat and the MQ-25 Stingray.

The Ghost Bat is a general purpose autonomous jet being developed with the Royal Australian Air Force, while the MQ-25 is an autonomous refueller being developed for the US Navy to support aircraft carrier air wings.

“[We] are confident in our ability to provide the US Air Force a capable, versatile and affordable Collaborative Combat Aircraft fleet that can be produced efficiently and delivered at scale,” Boeing says, without providing further detail.

Kratos Thanatos

Source: Kratos

While UAV manufacturer Kratos does not confirm its participation in the CCA programme, the company is already a leader in the autonomous jet space, with a new platform – the Thanatos – announced in November and multiple test contracts for the XQ-58 Valkyrie already in-hand

Boeing is known to have brought at least one example of the MQ-28 to the USA for testing and evaluation with the USAF. FlightGlobal observed the experimental aircraft at the headquarters of Boeing’s defence unit in St Louis, Missouri in 2023.

Lockheed, which produces both the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter and long-serving F-16 fourth-generation type, confirms its secretive Skunk Works unit is supporting the CCA programme.

“The team is hard at work, prioritising speed to ramp and delivering quantity at scale to realise the air force vision of autonomous systems working synergistically with crewed systems to provide the ultimate in mission flexibility as part of a distributed team,” Lockheed says.

The airframer has previously suggested its F-35s could also be configured to operate alongside autonomous partners.

Northrop – known for developing the pioneering B-2 Spirit flying-wing stealth bomber and that aircraft’s successor, the B-21 Raider – says it will contribute “expertise in advanced manufacturing, digital technologies and autonomous systems to deliver Collaborative Combat Aircraft capabilities rapidly and affordably”.

“Our technologies and solutions will give the US and its allies the advanced systems and platforms needed to address evolving threats,” Northrop adds.

Under an initiative dubbed “Replicator”, the Pentagon aims to field thousands of such autonomous systems in the coming years, across its various military services and war-fighting domains.