This summer, the US Air Force awarded contracts to four companies to develop prototypes for the Skyborg Program, the Air Force’s effort to provide relatively inexpensive autonomous uncrewed combat aircraft to serve as robotic wingmen to human-piloted F-22 and F-35 fighters. Skyborg is one of three Vanguard initiatives—programs intended to stretch the Air Force’s capabilities with disruptive new technologies.
The US military has been talking about so-called “loyal wingman” drones for close to a decade. The Navy had its own carrier-based drone effort, which after successes in early testing morphed into a robotic refueling tanker program. But most of the US combat drone efforts have focused on providing slower, longer-flying propeller-powered drones for the least-sexy jobs in the air: surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeted air support. And the stars of that show, the General Atomics Predator and its larger Reaper sibling, are flown from a distance by human pilots communicating with ground and air forces.