By Prasanth GS
The future aircraft will not fly into enemy territory, instead if the situation arises they will send a “Loyal Wingman” for this requirement.
What is a wingman?
A wingman is basically the pilot in an attack aircraft flying beside to the right wing and slightly behind the lead fighter aircraft in a formation tasked to support the lead in a potentially dangerous aerial combat.
The wingman keeps a watch and provides situational awareness what is in front of him and provides early warning to the leader or lead aircraft about the threat in a potentially dangerous aerial situation.
When your wingman is a drone!
Yeah, you heard it right! All the leading air forces like US, Russia, UK, France, India and China are pursuing UCAV programs as a wingman. You could see these air forces operating crewed military aircrafts in conjunction with a wingman, AI-based UCAVs and other unmanned systems in the near future. The concept is quite similar to the one shown in the movie, “Stealth” where the US Navy is pursuing a UCAV program as the wingman, though most of them currently remains as test beds or technology demonstrators. But recently, Boeing has unveiled a new combat UCAV (unmanned fighter) commonly known as “Loyal Wingman” by Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System (ATS) for the Royal Australian Air Force on 27th February as a part of the project “Plan Jericho”.
This article will take you through the Beings “Loyal Wingman” and others’ parallel projects across different forces, advantages of having a robotic wingman, its challenges and to what degree can they mature these solutions and use it as an alternative to manned assets.
Boeing Loyal Wingman:
This unmanned wingman is 12-meter-long with a combat range of around 2000 miles powered by a single turbofan jet engine to attain a speed of more than 700 plus knots. Its designed to perform the swing-role from electronic warfare to reconnaissance or even close air support just by switching the modules.
It looks quite like a fighter aircraft with two tail fins similar to YF-23 Black Widow and semi trapezoidal wings similar to General Atomic Predator Drone with trapezoidal intakes. It’s designed to closely work with the manned aircraft as a low-cost option, though Boeing hasn’t quoted the unit price. However, the estimated cost is said to be around $ 2 – 5 million for the bare bone ACAV against the $90 million F-35 aircraft. The wingman is powered by a bizjet class engine.
The loyal wingman will be able to conduct autonomous flight, following a flight plan and formation like humans with its Artificial Intelligence, unlike any existing drones like Herons, Reapers, which are designed to pilot remotely from a ground station. This prevents the force from sending the man to the line of action where they could be killed or captured. Even if this aircraft is captured, if necessary, these could be programmed to self-destruct to prevent the technology from being acquired by the opponent.
- Initially designed as an electronic warfare platform (Teaming with EA -18G).
- Reconnaissance (with P-8 Poseidon)
- Close Air Support.
- Tactical Early Warning.
- Modular design for “Snap-IN” payload based on different mission configuration.
- Air-to-air and air-to-surface roles.
- As the name says – Wingman: flying in formation, following the lead aircraft, breaking out of the formation and deploying the payload as per the instruction from lead.
- Even though the aircraft flies autonomously, the payload will be deployed semi-automatically which means the control of the release of the payload will still be with the lead aircraft operator.
Possibly, in an aerial combat, an F-35 pilot could locate and designate the target to its Loyal Wingman while maintaining its stealth without launching its weapons. Though this remains as a concept now, once fruitful, can project the air power and act as a force multiplier.
Following the same concept, other leading forces are also pursuing the wingman programs. Let’s go through few of the known ones.
XQ – 58A Valkyrie
Valkyrie was a joint effort between Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems and the Air Force Research Laboratory designed to mimic the role and capabilities of a combat jet. The XQ-58A Valkyrie is a high-subsonic vehicle powered by a single turbine engine with a range of some 3,000 miles, launched from a stand using rocket technology and recovered by a parachute. The prototype was originally designated the XQ-222 in the earlier stages of development by industry partner Kratos. Two internal weapons bays allow for a 500-pound weapons payload for two GBU-39 small-diameter bombs, while there is also scope for underwing hardpoints to be included. The U.S. Air Force’s original requirements were:
- To have a low-cost, runway-independent UCAV
- Should be launched from the back of trucks and ships at sea.
- Complement aircrafts including the F-22 and F-35 fighters.
- After the mission, they should be able to deploy parachute and float back for recovery.
The XQ-58A is designed to be stealthy with the exhaust nozzle buried within the fuselage to mask its radar and infrared signature, though it was not part of the original requirement.
- Wingman: Escort F-22 or F-35
- Scouting and surveillance
- Swarm attack with or without pilot control.
- Length – 8.8 m
- Wingspan – 6.7 m
- Max Speed – Mach 0.85
- Range – 3000 mi
- Weapons – Two internal weapons bays with 4 hardpoints each for a 500-pound weapons payload or for two GBU-39 small diameter bombs.
As a part of this project, The US Air Force (USAF) has launched a competition to design the artificially intelligent software, called Skyborg, that would control its planned fleet of loyal wingman unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). Skyborg would be artificially intelligent software used to control the flight path, weapons and sensors of large numbers of UAVs. Automating flight control, in particular via artificial intelligence, is seen as necessary to allow a single person, perhaps a backseat operator in a fighter, to command multiple UAVs at once.
Project Mosquito: UK’s ‘Loyal Wingman’
UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) is pursuing a “loyal wingman” program (Phase 1) under the project name “Project Mosquito” to develop a low-cost flyable technology demonstrator (LANCA) of a future Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) that could fly autonomously with manned combat aircraft. Light-weight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) will fly in coordination with crewed assets such as F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon and future Tempest. Three bidders have been selected for the program to build the prototype – Blue Bear Systems Research, Boeing UK and Callen-Lenz from Black Dawn Team with technical assistance from Bombardier Aerospace and Northrop Grumman Belfast Unit. During the Phase 2, the selected bidder will refine its design and conduct a limited flight test campaign. The LANCA program will be initiated under the RCO’s FCAS TI. LANCA is quite similar to programs undertaken elsewhere like USAF’s Skyborg UCAS program with its Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie flown as a loyal wingman. As per the scaled model displayed, it will have a V-tail and swept wing and appears to have stealthy features with top-mounted air intake, chin line and shrouded exhaust. The DSTL hopes to fly the technology demonstrator by 2022.
- ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance)
- Electronic Warfare
- Strike Mission
- Wingman, decoy to lead manned aircraft
Indian Air Force along with HAL and a private start-up New Space (NS) is pursuing an Unmanned ”Wingman” Drone which could redefine Air Warfare. The initial design looks quite similar to the LANCA Program of UK. The current plan is to pitch-up the wingman with a heavily-upgraded IAF Jaguar MAX fighter. The Jaguars MAX will be accompanied by three or more wingmen in a networked “pack” approach. ”These wingmen will act as an extra eye providing situational awareness of the contested airspace to the lead aircraft through an indigenously developed two-way data-link and will be the first line of offense during the operations. In the preliminary configuration, these wingmen will be tasked against heavily defended integrated air defence networks” with a single precision-guided weapon, such as an air-to-surface missile or a laser-guided bomb. They also plan to arm it with air-to-air missiles to target enemy fighters, though this is a distant dream! Each drone is estimated to cost under $5 million.
- ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance)
- Ground Strike Mission
- Wingman for Jaguar MAX
- Cruise Speed: 0.7 Mach
- Range: 800 km
- Endurance: 80 minutes
- MTOW: 1300 kg with two PTA7E engines
- Payload: 250 kg
- Engine: PTA7E turbojet engine (used to power Lakshya Target Drones)
A new engine with higher efficiency and MTOW is under proposal to improve its flight performance.
China’s Loyal Wingman
An unknown Chinese company is developing a high-speed loyal wingman drone – LJ-1 which is designed to function as a high-speed target drone and also as a wingman. This project is considered as an endorsement of the wingman concept, currently being developed by the U.S. and Australia. China is also pursuing another combat drone project, Dark Sword which was showcased during an Air Show.
LJ-1 is known to be a jet powered drone developed for tactical missions with additional roles as mentioned below:
- High-speed target drone
- As “Wingman” to fly alongside the manned lead aircraft
- Suicide drone with high explosive payload
- Tactical Operation Missions
- Works as radar jammer
- Stand-off land attack cruise missile by swapping its payload
Not much about the specifications are available in the public domain.
Airbus with MBDA is collaborating to develop “Remote Carriers” (another term for loyal wingman-type drones) as part of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program. It will be a part of the wider mixed-platform “Air Combat Cloud” approach to facilitate data sharing with Airbus being the prime contractor. The “Next Generation Fighter (NGF)” with the “Remote Carrier (RC)” program will form the Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS) program. Dassault will be tasked to develop the new stealth fighter and Airbus to develop the remote carriers and the air-combat cloud.
Like the UK’s Mosquito program, these wingmen will be air-launched and will carry a mixture of payloads to be used in conjunction with other aircraft. MBDA will be focusing on the development of small and medium class remote carrier platforms under the lead of Airbus. The new European concepts will be called as a ‘Loyal Pack of Hounds’ unlike the Boeing’s ‘Loyal Wingman’ which will be tasked to identify, flush-out and destroy the opposition.
During the air show, MBDA has unveiled two system concepts:
- Small prototype – RC-100 – Derivative of Smart Glider. Its light, compact (1.8 m & 120 kg) and compatible with the launchers of the next-gen fighter. Its mission roles include electronic warfare, reconnaissance, air-to-air decoy to create RCS of a fighter.
- Big brother – RC-200 – Size is 2.8 m & weighs 240 kg. Propelled by turbojet engine to achieve 0.8 Mach. Its bigger size allows it to carry lethal and non-lethal payloads at the same time.
- Electronic jamming
- Target designation and engaging
- Operate in anti-access/area denial environments
During the initial phase, the Remote Carriers will be paired with Eurofighters. Airbus and Pittsburgh-based ANSYS has partnered to develop new technology to enable safe and sophisticated flight operations for the drones.
Roles of ANSYS:
- Real-time, certified software implementation to a code from a trained artificial neural network. This neural network will have learned advanced and sophisticated motions and maneuvers to operate the remote carriers (Airbus is tasked to train this neural network).
- Modify the algorithm as the technology progresses to adapt and conduct complex, high speed operations in real time.
- AI based sensor fusion threat detection and target identification for the FCAS.
- Develop perception software tools that could be used to enhance safety.
Though both Taranis and nEUROn are specific to a strike mission, it is unclear if they could be considered a ‘loyal wingman’ as opposed to an autonomous UCAV.
The Kronstadt Group revealed a full-scale mockup of its loyal wingman concept, GROM and HELIOS aircrafts. As per the company, the GROM is designed to provide close support to the Su-35 and Su-57 Felon.
The company claims that a manned fighter can be packed with three or four Grom UAS.
- Electronic Jamming
- Air to ground strike mission
The Grom is to be powered by two 2,500-kg-thrust AI-222-25 turbofans.
The other one in the tray is the HELIOS.
The Helios UAS, also built by Kronstadt, is a radar surveillance and guidance drone. The plan is to pack it with the A-100 Beriev AWACS with a large surveillance radar under the fuselage. The aircraft weighs 4,000 kg and has a flight endurance of 30 hours at 11,000 m altitude. Both the HELIOS and the GROM remains a mockup as of now.
Russian Air Force is also trying to team up its Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik (Hunter) unmanned combat aircraft Sukhoi with the Su-57 Felon stealth fighter.
Conclusion: A bit from everything
All of these projects seek to create “Networked Pack” that makes very high degree of artificial intelligence so that it can make autonomous decisions within the planned mission. The US follows a “Loyal Wingman” concept while UK and France follow a “Loyal Pack” concept. These UASs teamed up with the manned aircraft tasked for reconnaissance, ground strike and defense suppression in coordinated swarms can saturate air defenses. The ability to use lower-cost airframes in conjunction with the manned aircrafts has made it extremely attractive option while protecting the valuable manned assets.
But we do have some challenges as well. As these platforms are not completely autonomous yet, the manned asset like the F-18, EFT will have a difficult time to survive with trying to manage slaves in tow. Above all, it requires sheer amount of AI coding to make it autonomous. It’s too early to speculate how much these platforms can mature and be packed with the manned air assets. It will probably take at least a decade to balance manned assets and robotic wingmen in the Air Forces.