Air Force marks key signpost in robot wingmen award

Artist's rendering of the unmanned aerial combat vehicle concept.

Artist's rendering of the unmanned aerial combat vehicle concept. Air Force image

Anduril and General Atomics are well known in the defense industry. But their selections for phase one of the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program stand out for who they went up against and where the tech is going.

Finances likely were a factor in the Air Force's choice of two companies for round one of its program to develop unmanned aerial vehicles for escorting fighter pilots into combat.

After all, the Air Force wanted to pick three companies to further develop the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program, but it ended up picking just two -- Anduril and General Atomics -- for the first increment to field the UAVs quickly.

My Defense One colleague Audrey Decker has more on the program itself and what the Air Force wants to accomplish in her article from Wednesday.

The Air Force's decision to go with Anduril and General Atomics is notable for who they were up against: Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Combat aircraft is in the history and DNA of those three companies, albeit with different and likely larger cost structures versus Anduril and General Atomics.

Which is where the (likely) reasoning of money and time comes into play. As Audrey points out: any of the five companies can compete for production contracts on either increment one or two, but have to spend their own dollars on further developing the designs.

The Air Force has also said that initial activities for increment two will start later this year and all five competitors will compete in the follow-on effort. Much more runway is ahead in the effort to build and deliver at least 1,000 of the CCA aircraft.

General Atomics is a largely-secretive outfit, but a quick glance at the history of GA and its Aeronautical Systems subsidiary that specializes in UAVs indicates a company willing to lean in and own some of the risk involved in development.

We are talking about the company that produced the Predator UAV, which has forever changed the course of warfare since it was first deployed in the 1990s. The Avenger, Gray Eagle and Reaper drones have added functionalities from the original basis provided by Predator.

Anduril is the complete opposite of General Atomics in this respect: it wants to be known, seen and heard with respect to everything it does. We are talking about a seven-year-old startup that is one of the few defense tech unicorns with a touted valuation north of $1 billion.

Being selected for a program of record like CCA that has significant scale – again 1,000 aircraft is the goal – is a vote of confidence in the approach Anduril and General Atomics proposed to the Air Force. Certainly the technical aspects of their designs are a factor too.

Consider what Anduril's founder Palmer Luckey told CNBC on Thursday night, almost 24 hours after the company learned it would participate in the CCA program's first phase.

Luckey is doing what he should do in backing his company, but he also hits on an important point of how fast the technology landscape has moved in the seven years since Anduril started. The current hype cycle of artificial intelligence is changing the conversation around everything tech, including defense.

"AI's going to be an important part, not just of the economy, but also of the way that we deter wars, fight wars and win wars, and the CCA program is a reflection of that," Luckey told CNBC.

"Building autonomous fighter jets that fight alongside people is a very challenging application of AI, it's one that my company is up to the task, I think that's one of the reasons that we were selected as a company that's been around for less than seven years, over companies that have a long track record of building fighter jets, not a long track record of building AI that have been around for over 70 years."

The Air Force wants a lot of things done differently with CCA: faster, cheaper and different colors of money. Anduril and General Atomics appear happy to sign up for that.

Below is that previously mentioned CNBC interview with Luckey.