Autonomous fighter aircraft currently being developed for the US Air Force (USAF) could soon be eligible for export to overseas customers, including countries in the Asia-Pacific.

While the earliest versions of the pilotless combat jets may be restricted to domestic use, the USAF’s top procurement official says exportability is being planned for subsequent iterations, which could arrive as soon as 2025.

Assistant air force secretary Andrew Hunter on 20 February said the service is “deeply exploring” the options for “significant partner involvement” in the autonomous fighter programme’s next step.

“We see a deeper level of international engagement on increment two,” Hunter says.

“That’s not to say that we might not eventually export increment one, as is, to certain partners, if there’s interest in that,” he adds.

General Atomics Gambit

Source: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

The General Atomics Gambit is one example of the type of jet-powered autonomous combat aircraft the US Air Force hopes to rapidly field in large numbers

The USAF in January selected five manufacturers to develop prototypes of what the service calls Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), which will team with conventional manned fighters to provide additional weapons, electronic warfare support and intelligence gathering.

Defence mainstays Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were picked, as well as uncrewed air vehicle manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and start-up Anduril.

The air force’s goal for the CCA programme is to deliver “something that is substantially less expensive than a [Lockheed] F-35”, according to Hunter.

A conventional take-off F-35A variant is currently priced around $78 million per aircraft.

With plans to field thousands of autonomous systems in the coming years, the USAF is seeking to rapidly move through the CCA development effort and select a winner.

Notably, that decision could see CCA contracts awarded to more than one provider.

“In order to get to the inventory levels that the secretary has identified as a target, it’s quite possible that we could take multiple vendors into production,” Hunter reveals.

Separate from the aircraft themselves, the USAF also plans to share with overseas partners the reference architecture and interfaces that will be the common foundation of each CCA.

Doing so allows non-US companies to independently develop their own autonomous aircraft that can still be compatible with American systems.

“Whether or not you we would necessarily do a traditional export type arrangement, countries would be able to build towards the same standard and have inherently interoperable platforms,” Hunter says.

Notable examples of CCAs in the Asia-Pacific are Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat, being developed in partnership with Australia, and multiple platforms in development by South Korean companies Korea Aerospace Industries and Korean Air.

While the USAF has provided industry a defined set of capabilities for the first increment of CCAs, Hunter envisions the type expanding to fill the full range of air warfare functions, including air-to-air and air-to-ground strikes.