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Opinion Pieces by Rob

Wittman: Why manned-unmanned teaming could be the Fourth Offset for America’s military

In the early 2000s, Congress tracked a rising discussion in defense circles about the extent to which a revolution in the character of war — driven by technological advancement — would shape how war is fought in the future. By the early 2010s, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work introduced the concept of the “third offset” strategy, urging the US military to embrace technology with military applications. Fast forward to today, and we stand on the precipice of a fourth offset — one that has the potential to reshape the very theory of battle, particularly in aviation.

The first offset was the use of nuclear weapons to counter Soviet power, and the second offset the development of precision weapons to compensate for US numerical inferiority in the American arsenal. Work’s third offset focused on leveraging advanced technologies — like artificial intelligence and unmanned systems — to counter the technological advancements of China and Russia.

Since Congress recognizes that the US military will always require capability and capacity overmatch with its competitors, policymakers are well-served by focusing on efforts to enhance both. While the third offset was focused on securing technological superiority over adversaries, what must define this fourth offset is a fundamental shift in cost-imposition curves. It is not enough to rely on the technical superiority of a few exceptionally capable systems. The US needs a solution to offset China’s industrial capacity, intellectual property theft, low weapons development costs, and more.

One promising opportunity lies in the form of manned-unmanned teaming, the kind of effort the US Air Force is pursuing under its Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program and the Navy is also experimenting with. I believe this concept will be critical to outpace competitors’ rapidly advancing technological capabilities in domains that traditionally were distinct asymmetric advantages for the US, while remaining cost-effective.

The general idea of CCAs is not new. The concept of airborne manned-unmanned teaming entered the conversation in the context of existing platforms, like networking a number of drones with the F-35, F-22, or F/A-18.  However, most of the important analyses of when and how front-line fighters will actually employ a combination of manned and unmanned systems are centered on the Air Force’s and Navy’s sixth-generation piloted aircraft programs.

However, NGAD programs for both services are not set to begin fielding to the services until the 2030s. I contend that drones teamed with other aircraft could and should solve much more near-term problems for the Air Force and the Navy. To this end, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has publicly acknowledged that CCA acquisition will begin as soon as late 2023 and arrive in the late 2020s, before NGAD fighters are fielded.

As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown observed in February, “As you look at collaborative combat aircraft, it can be a sensor, it could be a shooter, it can be a jammer.” That description solves a wide number of missions beyond air superiority – jamming capabilities and portend a CCA future that can also augment bombers, tankers, the new E-7 aircraft  or enable a space based sensing layer.

Because the Air Force and Navy will likely receive these teaming drones before NGAD, the services and Congress should investigate options to leverage and field the drones along expedited timeframes. Thiscollab includes ensuring that our currently small fleets of advanced fourth-generation and existing fifth-generation fighters are capable of being networked with teams of drones and can seamlessly integrate with the additional sensor data that those drones can generate. We also need to leverage the interoperability provided by CCAs and the Navy’s solution and expand their application beyond Air Force and Navy tactical fighter communities to include other critical enabling combat capabilities like big-winged ISR and mobility aircraft platforms. Congress is rightly considering opportunities to enhance the performance envelopes of existing platforms along these lines in the context of the FY24 National Defense Authorization Act, and I encourage my colleagues to support these efforts.

There are several challenges presented to Congress that the Air Force and Navy drone team programs might solve.

First, the US is on a trajectory that will see us lose both our lead in numerical capacity and capability when it comes to aircraft. The Air Force is rapidly attempting to divest its existing aircraft force structure. In its FY24 budget request, the Air Force proposed a divestment strategy that would decrease its Total Aircraft Inventory by 190 aircraft in one year—which is problematic by itself. We also know the service plans to divest 801 fighter aircraft from FY23-FY28, while only buying 345 new fighters over the same period.

The Navy is not much better, with a significant strike-fighter shortfall that will persist until at least 2031. The Navy has yet to achieve its planned production rate of 24 F-35C aircraft per year nor provide Congress a plan on how it will meet its statutory requirement of maintaining ten carrier air-wings to support the eventual 12 aircraft carrier force structure.

Adding a pair of drones for every fighter — if not more, as the technology develops — is an obvious way to ensure mass remains available for the Pentagon.

Second, the Air Force and the Navy are on the wrong side of the cost-imposition curve. With the Air Force’s sixth-generation Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) aircraft expected to cost “hundreds of millions apiece,” the development and proliferation of adversary drones that could defeat — or at least challenge — one of the US military’s fourth- or fifth-generation fighters at a much lower cost puts the service between a rock and a very expensive place.

Finally, much like the Department of the Navy is challenged with projecting air power at sea from the aircraft carrier and large-deck aviation amphibious ships, the Air Force is highly dependent on deeply vulnerable airfields across the Indo-Pacific that China can target in the event of a conflict. Generating survivable air power within China’s anti-access/area denial circles is no easy task due to the PLA’s long-range missiles and air defense systems. Having systems we are less afraid of losing would open up different concepts of operation in a conflict against China.

We must be forward-leaning to leverage emerging technologies effectively for defense purposes. Accelerating CCAs in the near-term is a clear opportunity to execute this objective and deliver value and increased lethality to our Airmen, Sailors, and Marines within relevant timeframes to enhance the capacity and capability of our fighter aircraft.

Welcome the Fourth Offset.