Whoever said, “It’s all about the money,” had it right. Buy that fellow a beer!And 'it' has a lot to do with the US Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drones, also known as the Loyal Wingman.The 'it' here is the new generation of un-crewed drones that will fight alongside crewed aircraft.Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall revealed some interesting details this week about the CCA program during a public event at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C., the War Zone reported.The program is part of the Air Force's larger Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) modernization initiative that also includes the development of a new crewed sixth-generation combat jet (yes, it’s already in the works,) electronic warfare suites, sensors, battle management capabilities, engines and other systems.Kendall revealed the Loyal Wingman drones will cost as little as a quarter of the current price of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the report said."If we go ahead buying just the NGAD platform and F-35s and B-21s as our combat aircraft, you can't afford the Air Force. Those systems are all [in the] 100 million dollar-plus category, in some cases, way beyond that," Kendall said."So, we've got to have something that will allow us to have massive [capability at] affordable prices. So, CCA is designed to do that."Translation? If they want all those expensive toys — each new B-21 is pegged at roughly US$729.25 million and the UAF expects to procure at least 100 — they can’t afford it all, even by US military budget standards. Thus the push toward Loyal Wingman drones. At least a thousand of them, in fact, with high degrees of autonomy designed to work closely with crewed combat jets.How the unit costs of the three existing variants of the F-35 are calculated has long been a subject of debate.For instance, as of January, Lockheed Martin pegged the price of the A variant the US Air Force flies at US$69.9 million, according to Air & Space Forces Magazine, but that figure doesn't include the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine.The US military's F-35 Joint Program Office told Defense One recently the average unit price for examples of all three variants, including the engines, in the latest production lots is around US$82.5 million.A quarter of that would be just under US$20.6 million.The bill for buying 1,000 CCAs with that unit cost would therefore be close to US$20.6 billion, the War Zone reported.As Kendall noted, this is still much cheaper than purchasing substantial numbers of crewed jets at close to US$100 million apiece or substantially more.The Secretary of the Air Force has previously hinted each NGAD jet, of which the service plans to buy 200, would be incredibly expensive, being “multiples of the F-35,” likely totalling several hundred million per tail. Kendall also revealed that multiple MQ-28s are being used to support Air Force test efforts tied to the CCA program.It emerged in 2022 the service had acquired at least one of these drones, which was originally developed for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), but further details about that effort have been limited since then, the War Zone reported.A video the Air Force Research Laboratory released earlier this year, heavily featured MQ-28 Ghost Bats, including slickly edited clips depicting them flying alongside Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters and other crewed aircraft.A Ghost Bat was also photographed alongside an MQ-25 Stingray at MidAmerica Airport outside of St. Louis, Missouri, known to be the home of the T1 demonstrator."Our autonomous duo meets at last," according to a post from Boeing accompanying the picture on Twitter ("X").The MQ-28 Ghost Bat provides fighter-like performance with modular adaptability, while the MQ-25 Stingray refuels fighters to keep the mission going.The centrepiece of the Ghost Bat's modularity is the ability to swap out entire nose sections with different sensors and other systems.This is the future of the USAF in a nutshell. Drones refuelling drones. Drones fighting alongside crewed combat aircraft. Cost effective air dominance.And, a sixth-generation fighter jet, on the drawing board.The pool of vendors vying to build the aircraft is unclear, though defence giants Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman are assumed to be in the mix. According to Kendall, the Air Force plans to field the fighter by the end of the decade. The USAF has made no secret of its concerns about the growing vulnerability of large, established bases and the need for more distributed operations, as well as new camouflage, concealment and deception capabilities and tactics, as being essential.They are even talking about complete runway independence, or short takeoff and landing performance for future CCAs, offering additional operational flexibility.Not only is it unmanned, it might one day be able to land, take off and strike anywhere on the planet. All without a pilot in the seat.It’s all about the money.