Air Force secretary plans to ride in AI-operated F-16 fighter aircraft this spring

U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall met with the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday and said he plans to ride in an autonomously-operated aircraft this Spring.

Air Force secretary plans to ride in AI-operated F-16 fighter aircraft this spring

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told members of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday that he plans to ride in the cockpit of an aircraft operated by artificial intelligence to experience the technology of the military branch’s future fleet.

Kendall spoke before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense panel on Tuesday, where he spoke about the future of air warfare being dependent on autonomously operated drones.

In fact, the Air Force secretary is pushing to get over 1,000 of the AI-operated drones and plans to let one of them take him into the air later this spring.

The aircraft he plans to board will be an F-16 which was converted for drone flight.

"There will be a pilot with me who will just be watching, as I will be, as the autonomous technology works," Kendall said. "Hopefully neither he nor I will be needed to fly the airplane."

Last month, the Pentagon said it was looking to develop new artificial intelligence-guided planes, offering two contracts for several private companies to compete against each other to obtain.

The Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) project is part of a $6 billion program that will add at least 1,000 new drones to the Air Force. The drones will be designed to deploy alongside human-piloted jets and provide cover for them, acting as escorts with full weapons capabilities. The drones could also act as scouts or communications hubs, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

The companies bidding for the contract include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Anduril Industries.

Cost-cutting is one of the elements of AI that appeals to the Pentagon for pursuing the project.

In August 2023, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said deployed AI-enabled autonomous vehicles would provide "small, smart, cheap and many" expendable units to the U.S. military, helping overhaul the "too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation."

Military officials have been mum on what the drones will actually look like in terms of size – full-sized planes or smaller.

But the idea is to not fall too far behind China, which has modernized its air defense systems, which are much more sophisticated and put manned planes at risk when they get too close.

Drones have the potential of interrupting such defense systems and could be used to jam them or provide surveillance for crews.

"The initial role for the aircraft was going to be counter-air, but it will have the potential to do other things," Kendall said during the hearing.

He also said the new drone fleet will likely be cheaper than having new manned jets created. The goal is to have the drones cost about a third or less than the $20 million it costs to build an F-35 fighter.

Peter Aitken of Fox News Digital contributed to this report.