Continuing the tradition
The Royal Australian Air Force is a formidable and large regional player with dozens of aircraft of different classes. The basis of combat aviation is various versions of the F / A-18, including the modern Super Hornet fighter-bombers. The main hope of the Australian Air Force for the foreseeable future will be the F-35A. The first of these aircraft made its maiden flight on September 29, 2014 at the factory airfield of the Lockheed Martin corporation in Fort Worth; in total, Australia received more than 20 such aircraft out of 72 ordered.
As you can easily see, the potential of the Australian Air Force is completely dependent on the United States. This has not always been the case. For example, during World War II, Australia produced the conditionally “national” fighter CAC Boomerang.
We can say that now the country has decided to regain its lost positions, but already within the framework of the new realities of modern globalization. On May 5, 2020, the first prototype of the Loyal Wingman unmanned aerial vehicle was rolled out at the Boeing Australia enterprise. Boeing Australia itself is Boeing’s largest business unit outside the United States. It was founded in 2002 on the basis of De Havilland Australia: the company controls numerous subsidiaries, integrating and coordinating the activities of the transatlantic corporation in Australia. The number of employees as of 2019 is 3,000 people.
It is obvious that the development of its own military-industrial complex is an extremely important issue for Australia. However, the Loyal Wingman is interesting for a different reason: it is about potentially one of the most revolutionary combat aircraft of the future. Recall that it is being created as part of the Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program in the interests of the Australian Air Force. The project is funded by the Boeing Corporation and the Australian Government.
The development would have been impossible without the participation of the American side: it is based on concepts developed by Phantom Works, a special Boeing research group working in promising areas. True, the Australians hope to establish a full cycle of UAV production in their homeland with the possibility of exporting the device to other countries. If Loyal Wingman manages to “wedge” into the narrow market for combat aircraft, that in itself could be considered a great success for Boeing Australia.
The technical aspect
The subsonic drone is the basis of the so-called Boeing Airpower Teaming System – a bundle of combat aircraft and unmanned wingmen. The latter should receive commands from pilots and operate in a semi-autonomous mode. De facto, this is a cross between modern UAVs of the MQ-9 type and hypothetical combat drones that work on the basis of neural networks and make independent decisions.
Loyal Wingman is a fairly large machine. It is 11 meters long and 11.7 meters wide. It has one jet engine. The main design feature of the UAV can be called a modular principle: depending on the nature of the task, the device will be able to take different loads. First of all, probably, we are talking about various sensors that allow you to detect and identify the enemy. In the future, the device may receive its own weapons.
It is important to say that with a declared range of 3,700 kilometers (probably ferry), Loyal Wingman will be able to accompany manned fighters throughout the entire flight, regardless of the nature of the combat mission. Among the declared goals are reconnaissance, strike missions, jamming, and so on. In general, it is the multifunctionality that underlies the promising UAV. At the same time, it will be possible to use a variety of platforms for it. As noted by the bmpd military blog, these can be both F-35A and F / A-18F combat fighters, as well as EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft, as well as Boeing P-8A patrol aircraft and Boeing E-7A Wedgetail early warning aircraft.
As for the timing, it is very difficult to say something definite. The innovativeness of the development can shift the adoption of the complex into service indefinitely. It is known, however, that they want to conduct ground tests this year, and soon after them the first flight of the device is expected. In total, three flight prototypes of the Loyal Wingman are involved in the tests. The tests will be carried out at the Woomera rocket and space test site in South Australia.
“Don’t panic, I’m near”
There is little doubt that the concept of an unmanned follower will get a start in life. Apart from stealth technology and the so-called “weapons based on new physical principles” (for example, combat lasers), this is the only opportunity to dramatically increase the combat potential of the air force. You can, of course, immediately start developing the aforementioned “full-fledged” autonomous drones – UAVs, capable of independently deciding on the use of weapons. But this raises several uncomfortable political and moral-ethical questions at once. For example, how to secure the device from being intercepted by the enemy? And can artificial intelligence be entrusted with the right to decide who lives and who dies? At the same time, the unmanned wingman is always (or almost always) in the field of view of the pilot, who “intuitively” senses the situation and can give the UAV the correct instructions. First, it will be reconnaissance and guidance, and then – strikes against ground targets and, possibly, participation in rare air battles.
Strictly speaking, Loyal Wingman will not necessarily be the first. On March 5, 2019, at the Arizona test site, Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, together with the US Air Force Research Laboratory, conducted the first flight of the technology demonstrator of the XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned aerial vehicle. It is seen as an unmanned wingman for the F-35 and F-22 Raptor fighters, as well as a number of other winged vehicles. The device is similar to the Loyal Wingman in terms of its dimensions: it is 9.1 meters long and has a wingspan of 8.2 meters.
The path to creating such a combat complex is long and thorny. This was confirmed by the accident that happened last fall during the third flight of the XQ-58A. Then, we will remind, during landing in a strong wind, the device was damaged. There is little doubt that this will not radically affect the testing of the UAV: already in January of this year, Kratos resumed testing the technology demonstrator. “We are very pleased with the results of the fourth flight test,” the US Air Force Research Laboratory said at the time.
In addition to Australia and the United States, other countries have decided to follow this path. So, at the last year’s exhibition in Le Bourget, one could see a mockup of the European sixth generation Next Generation Fighter (NGF) fighter, and next to it, a mock-up of a large UAV being developed under the same program (that is, the Future Combat Air System). And in Russia more than once they talked about the “kinship” of the new UAV “Okhotnik” and the fifth generation fighter Su-57. However, it is difficult to say exactly how the serial “Hunter” is seen in the Russian Ministry of Defense. So far, it looks not so much as an unmanned wingman, but as a demonstrator of the technologies of a heavy multifunctional UAV.