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The U.S. Air Force’s newest UAV is small, stealthy and cheap enough to be essentially disposable. The Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft (LCAA) could radically change the way the world’s leading air arm wages war. The Air Force wants the LCAA to have a Mach .9 top speed and a 2,400-kilometer mission-radius with a 220-kilogram payload in an internal bay.
The LCAA prototype, built by San Diego Kratos under a $41 million contract that the Air Force awarded in July 2016, bears a striking resemblance to Kratos’ XQ-222 drone concept. Kratos pitched the XQ-222 as an “affordable alternative” to traditional manned aircraft for strike, air-to-air and electronic attack missions.
The idea behind the LCAA is to build lots of inexpensive drones and send them into combat without worrying about losing them. “These LCAA UAVs deliver long-range responsive capability in near-peer environments where forward basing is difficult,” the Pentagon stated. “LCAA can fly into highly contested areas ahead of a manned craft. The manned aircraft will thus be supported by UAVs, thereby increasing the engagement abilities in contested areas.”
It’s unclear how autonomous the LCAA will be and who would control them. But it’s worth noting that the Air Force is working on new technologies for combining manned and unmanned aircraft in mixed formations, with the crew of the manned planes issuing commands to highly-autonomous robotic wingmen. But to be “attritable,” the LCAA must be cheap.
The Air Force’s contract with Kratos requires that the LCAA cost no more than $3 million apiece for 99 copies and $2 million or less for batches of 100 or more drones.
“LCAA can be manufactured at a high rate, ultimately reducing cost,” the Pentagon stated. The drones would be relatively flimsy. “LCAA are not built for longevity: acceptance criteria should become less complex, resulting in a quicker production-to-air timeline.” “This approach has several benefits,” said Dan Ward, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former project manager. “The main one is that it is easier to experiment when the device is cheap and expendable. We can more readily try new ideas because our exposure to loss is low.”
The LCAA program is potentially revolutionary for the Air Force. Hundreds or even thousands of the new drones could augment dwindling numbers of expensive manned warplanes that take decades to develop and field. But the LCAA is, at present, an experiment. There’s no guarantee the wider Air Force will embrace the concept of a “throw-away” plane. “There is a long history of great prototypes and small programs started up at various labs,” P.W. Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation told warisboring.com. “Too few make it into a program of record, where they are deployed widely.”