General Atomics is now set to build and flight test one of the designs from its Gambit family of modular advanced air combat drones as part of the U.S. Air Force’s secretive Off-Board Sensing Station program, or OBSS. The company says this will offer a chance to validate the Gambit series’ novel design concept, which involves a common ‘chassis’ onto which different ‘body kits’ with vastly different planforms can be mated.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), which is leading the OBSS program, recently “exercised a build and flight test option” in an existing contract with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI), according to a press the company put out today. It emerged in March 2022 that Gambit was the basis for GA-ASI OBSS entry and it was subsequently revealed that the drone was just one of a family of systems, as you can read more about here.
“Throughout our 30-year history, GA-ASI has pioneered the advancement of unmanned aircraft systems that support our warfighters,” company President David R. Alexander said in a statement today. “AFRL is moving forward with GA-ASI because we have the right background and experience to develop the OBSS aircraft at scale and on time, and we look forward to working with them to deliver another game-changing UAS.”
AFRL first awarded OBSS contracts to General Atomics and Kratos Defense in October 2021. A spokesperson for Kratos told The War Zone that they had no details to share about whether or not AFRL had exercised a similar option on their contract. It had been previously suggested that a downselect would occur after the initial period of work wrapped up.
Publicly available details about OBSS and its objectives remain extremely limited. The War Zone has explored a number of possibilities in the past based on what we do know.
The program’s name might refer to one of many concepts for drones designed to provide sensor extension for crewed combat aircraft, at least partially in the air-to-air role. A rendering of Kratos’ OBSS design suggested it might be fitted with an infrared search and track (IRST) sensor in the nose, further pointing to such a mission set.
IRSTs, in general, are seeing something of a renaissance in the Air Force, as well as the U.S. Navy. They offer a valuable complement to traditional radars that can scan for threats passively, reducing the chance that the enemy will be alerted to the fact that they’ve been spotted, and that are immune to radiofrequency jamming. An IRST offers an alternative way to spot stealthy targets that radars may not be able to ‘see,’ too.
In addition, a single IRST is typically only readily able to provide data on a target’s bearing. Range can then be determined using other means, but this can be a lengthy and complex process. So, systems on multiple OBSS drones, as well as those on nearby crewed platforms, could be networked together to more quickly provide valuable triangulation to determine how far away a potential threat might be.
With all this in mind, OBSS could also be tied to growing interest within the Air Force and elsewhere in the idea of swarms of relatively low-cost uncrewed aircraft with high degrees of autonomy linked together using a “mesh” network acting as distributed sensor nodes. Drones within those swarms could also, of course, be configured to perform other roles, such as weapons launch platforms or communications relays. There is growing evidence that this kind of swarming capability could potentially be game-changing in a future major conflict, such as one with China over Taiwan.
It is known that OBSS has a heavy focus on broader issues relating to how uncrewed aircraft could be designed and produced in the future, especially with regard to scalability, modularity, and affordability. These factors are also central to GA-ASI’s underlying vision for the Gambit series.
The company has presented Gambit as being based on an automotive assembly line-inspired concept intended to increase flexibility in design and production and speed up those processes. All of the drones in this family are intended to use a common core that includes various basic features like landing gear and baseline avionics.
Physically modular and with open-architecture systems, additional components and functionality could then be readily integrated as desired. Various types of actual aircraft bodies, with planforms ranging from various traditional configurations to flying wings, could then be attached to that core.
GA-ASI has referred to the particular variation linked to OBSS, which has a stealthy-looking chined fuselage, a pair of main wings with minimal sweep, two vertical tails, and top-mounted engine intakes as Gambit 1. The company has said this configuration is focused on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, but without any particular details about what sensor it might be intended to carry.
This would certainly be in line with the mission set the Air Force is presumed to be looking at for the OBSS drones, at least initially. The work done under OBSS could, of course, have potential applications or general relevance well beyond this particular program.
“GA-ASI’s innovative Gambit Series aircraft will validate the ‘genus/species’ concept first developed by AFRL as part of the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Platform Sharing (LCAAPS) program focused on building several aircraft variants from a common core chassis,” the company’s press release today notes. “LCAAPS is a major air vehicle effort under AFRL’s Autonomous Collaborative Enabling Technologies (ACET) portfolio, which is focused on developing technologies for Autonomous Collaborative Platforms (ACP).”
Gambit has already seemed well positioned as an entrant into the Air Force’s upcoming Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) competition, which is expected to kick off in the 2024 Fiscal Year. CCA is focused on acquiring at least one type of advanced uncrewed aircraft with a high degree of autonomy to perform various types of missions in collaboration with crewed platforms, as you can learn more about here.
What we do know for sure is that AFRL is pressing ahead with the OBSS program and that GA-ASI is now set to build and test-fly a prototype of at least one variation of its novel Gambit family of drones.