USAF Considering Aerial Refueling For Early CCAs

General Atomics Gambit

Credit: General Atomics

The U.S. Air Force wants its early Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) to have range equal to or beyond that of fighter aircraft, with potentially aerial refueling capacity in the first increment.

The service plans to field its first increment of CCAs by 2028, with programs such as a new experimental operations unit standing up to evaluate how the systems can be integrated into Air Force units and operations. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said he wants to see about 1,000 of the uncrewed aircraft to fly alongside the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) platform, F-35s and F-22s.

Thomas Lawhead, the acting head of Air Force Futures and assistant deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, said Nov. 15 that this first increment will have the range “relatively the same as the current fighter fleet, potentially a little bit longer.”

The service is now working through concepts of employment based on that range, and the uncrewed systems’ ability to provide missions such as electronic warfare, off-board sensing and additional munitions. While future tranches will be aerial refuelable, Lawhead said, there is potential for the first aircraft to have refueling capability “depending on the offer.”

In a September solicitation, the Air Force said it is looking for engine options in a range between 3,000-8,000-lb. thrust to be available in 2028, 2030 and 2032.

The Air Force is working to keep the costs of CCAs and related mission systems down as much as it can while still meeting operational needs. Kendall has said the cost would be about one-third to one-quarter of an F-35.

“Once you get up to the cost of an F-35, you might as well buy an F-35,” Lawhead says.

As the acquisition program starts, the service through the Experimental Operations Unit (EOU) is looking at how CCAs will be integrated into force structure. This includes determining what a future fighter squadron would look like—would 48 CCAs, for example, be based alongside 24 primary aircraft. Or would many of them be kept deployed, and aircraft at their home base would primarily train for them virtually.

Lawhead says the service “has some ideas on how we would employ CCAs, both initially with the F-22 and ultimately with NGAD.”

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.


These CCA sound like they are more of a disposable aircraft BICs that can go in harm's way and deliver a deadly payload. Since they have no pilots, a loss is not catastrophic, and the plane can be flown outside the human physiological envelope.
Aerial refueling adds weight and cost. This is another indication that the 3,000 and 4,000 lb thrust engines will be too small. And those range requirements are looking too long for small turbofans.
Probably the team that selects a 7,000 lb thrust range engine will have the best chance to meet the range and payload requirements, as they continue to emerge. Those engines are still far less than one-quarter the cost of the F-35 engine, right?