That is where the new generation of A.I. drones, known as collaborative combat aircraft, will come in. The Air Force is planning to build 1,000 to 2,000 of them for as little as $3 million apiece, or a fraction of the cost of an advanced fighter, which is why some at the Air Force call the program “affordable mass.”
There will be a range of specialized types of these robot aircraft. Some will focus on surveillance or resupply missions, others will fly in attack swarms and still others will serve as a “loyal wingman” to a human pilot.
The drones, for example, could fly in front of piloted combat aircraft, doing early, high-risk surveillance. They could also play a major role in disabling enemy air defenses, taking risks to knock out land-based missile targets that would be considered too dangerous for a human-piloted plane.
The A.I. — a more specialized version of the type of programming now best known for powering chat bots — would assemble and evaluate information from its sensors as it approaches enemy forces to identify other threats and high-value targets, asking the human pilot for authorization before launching any attack with its bombs or missiles.
The cheapest ones will be considered expendable, meaning they likely will only have one mission. The more sophisticated of these robot aircraft might cost as much as $25 million, according to an estimate by the House of Representatives, still far less than a piloted fighter jet.