Defence technology start-up Anduril Industries has been selected as one of the companies to develop autonomous fighter aircraft for the US Air Force (USAF).
The artificial intelligence-focused manufacturer confirmed the selection on 25 January, noting four other defence contractors were also chosen by the USAF for the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) programme.
“We look forward to continued collaboration with our government partners to bring these advanced defence technologies to war fighters around the world,” Anduril says.
The company is a relatively new entrant into the defence industry, after being founded by Silicon Valley billionaire and virtual reality pioneer Palmer Luckey in 2017.
Without revealing its CCA competitors, Anduril notes it was the only “non-traditional” defence company selected for the programme.
Alongside Anduril, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have also confirmed their selection for the CCA effort. General Atomics and Lockheed Martin have also reportedly been chosen, but have not yet confirmed.
Luckey’s strategy for competing with the existing defence giants, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, has been to apply principles from the US technology sector, including rapid product development and a focus on ultra-efficient manufacturing.
While Anduril initially focused on developing software that could enable autonomy across a range of applications, the company has been steadily expanding into the aerospace realm.
Anduril offers multiple small uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) for traditional intelligence and reconnaissance purposes, but most recently unveiled its new Roadrunner type – a low-cost, jet-powered interceptor for targeting and destroying enemy UAVs in the air.
Notably, Roadrunner is able to land for refuelling and reuse if no target is intercepted. Comparable offerings in the space, such as the Raytheon Coyote, are considered expendable and cannot be reused.
With its September 2023 acquisition of autonomous fighter developer Blue Force Technologies, Anduril is also expanding into the type of high performance jet aircraft the USAF hopes to mature under the CCA programme.
The goal for CCAs is to ultimately deliver a range of high-speed, autonomous aircraft that can be paired with conventionally piloted fighters to assist with tasks including aerial refuelling, electronic warfare or carrying extra weapons.
Anduril is currently developing its Fury type toward this end, which has evolved from an adversary air training platform under Blue Force into what Anduril envisions as a fully-operational, multi-role fighter for the CCA role.
Competitors including Boeing and Kratos are ahead of Anduril in the autonomous fighter development effort, with prototype designs currently flying.
Kratos has the most advanced effort, with multiple orders from the USAF and US Marine Corps for the XQ-58 Valkyrie, which the two services are evaluating for suitability as a CCA.
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.
Boeing has brought at least one example to the USA for testing and evaluation with the USAF.
The MQ-25 is an autonomous refueller being developed for the US Navy to support the service’s aircraft carrier air wings at sea. Currently, that role is currently filled by Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters, which reduces the number of combat aircraft available for missions.
The USAF plans to pair CCAs with its secretive sixth-generation fighter – known only as the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.
Little is known about that platform, which remains highly-classified.
The prime contractor for NGAD is believed to be either Lockheed or Boeing – after Northrop announced it would not compete for the programme in July 2023.
Boeing and Lockheed are the only manufacturers currently producing fighter aircraft in the USA.
Northrop is developing the USAF’s next-generation B-21 flying wing stealth bomber.
Story updated 26 January with additional details regarding CCA developers