The US Air Force wants $5.8 billion to build 1,000 AI-driven unmanned combat aircraft, possibly more, as part of its next generation air dominance initiative

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II fly in formation with the XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground testing range, Ariz., during a series of tests Dec. 9, 2020
A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II fly in formation with the XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle over the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground testing range, Ariz., during a series of tests Dec. 9, 2020.U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James Cason
  • The Air Force has requested $5.8 billion in its budget to build AI-driven collaborative combat aircraft.

  • The autonomous aircraft are ideal for completing suicide missions and protecting pilots, the Air Force says.

  • Human rights advocates say letting technology take lives crosses a moral boundary.

The Air Force is seeking a multibillion-dollar budgetary allowance to research and build at least a thousand, but possibly more, unmanned aircraft driven by AI pilots, according to service plans.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie aircraft, a potential contender for the Air Force's collaborative combat aircraft program, is meant to serve as a robotic wingman to human-piloted aircraft able to provide cover and maneuver around in scenarios where a flesh-and-blood pilot might struggle, The New York Times reported. And they're ideal for suicide missions in which a human would be unlikely to return.

Later this year, the craft will be tested in a simulation where it will create its own strategy to chase and kill a target over the Gulf of Mexico, the Times reported.

Insider previously reported the Valkyrie can cruise at 550 mph. Its operational altitude is 45,000 feet with a range of 3,000 nautical miles. There are also other research and development efforts underway.

The budgetary estimate, which Congress has not yet approved, lists $5.8 billion in planned expenses over five years to build collaborative combat aircraft, systems like Valkyrie. The request comes after several years of test flights by the Air Force of the Valkyrie platform in which the vehicle has been used as a datalink for F-22s, F-35s, and the Air Force's Skyborg program, which is an artificial intelligence-enabled system to control unmanned aircraft.

The Times, citing congressional expectations, reported that the costs of the Air Force's collaborative combat aircraft will be between $3 million and $25 million depending on their status as expendable, attritable, or exquisite. Even the higher-end figure is far less than a manned aircraft with a pilot, both of which are valuable to the force.

Air Force and Department of Defense representatives did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. Kratos Defense, which makes the Valkyrie, would not comment on collaborative combat aircraft, citing the classified nature of the program.

While the Air Force's next generation air dominance family of systems effort, which is focused on delivering air superiority through the development of a crewed next-generation fighter jet supported by uncrewed collaborative combat aircraft, has garnered widespread military support, human rights advocates are concerned that the unmanned war machines included in the plan pave the way to a "Terminator"-style dystopian future.

"You're stepping over a moral line by outsourcing killing to machines — by allowing computer sensors rather than humans to take human life," Mary Wareham, the advocacy director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, a proponent of international limits on autonomous lethal weapons, told the Times.

Other AI-weapons opponents, such as the nonprofit Future of Life Institute, call these advancements "slaughterbots" because algorithmic decision-making in weapons allows for faster combat that can increase the threats of rapid conflict escalation and unpredictability — as well as the risk of creating weapons of mass destruction.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said as far back as 2019 that "machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant and should be prohibited by international law."

Correction: August 28, 2023 — An earlier version of this story misstated the Valkyrie's status within the next generation air dominance program, misidentified it as a later model of the 1960s bomber of the same name, and mischaracterized some details of the collaborative combat aircraft program.

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