Successor of tradition
The Royal Australian Air Force is a formidable and numerous regional player with dozens of aircraft of various classes. War base aviation - various versions of F / A-18, including the modern Super Hornet fighter-bomber. The main hope of the Australian Air Force in the foreseeable future will be F-35A. The first of these aircraft made its first flight on September 29, 2014 at the factory airport of the Forthe Worth Lockheed Martin corporation; in all, Australia received more than 20 such aircraft out of 72 ordered.
As you can 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 released the conditionally “national” CAC Boomerang fighter.
We can say that now the country has decided to regain its lost ground, but 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 a Boeing Australia enterprise. Boeing Australia itself is the largest division of Boeing outside the United States. It was founded in 2002 on the basis of De Havilland Australia: the company controls numerous subsidiaries, combining and coordinating the activities of the transatlantic corporation in Australia. The number of employees as of 2019 is 3000.
Obviously, the development of its own defense industry is an extremely important issue for Australia. However, Loyal Wingman is interesting for a different reason: it is 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 Boeing Corporation and the Australian Government.
Development would not have been possible without the participation of the American side: it is based on concepts developed by specialists from Phantom Works, a special Boeing research group working in promising areas. True, the Australians hope to establish in their homeland a full production cycle of UAVs with the possibility of exporting the device to other countries. If Loyal Wingman manages to "wedge" into the narrow military aviation market, this in itself can be considered a great success for Boeing Australia.
Subsonic drone is the basis of the so-called Boeing Airpower Teaming System - a bunch of combat aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. The latter should receive commands from the 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 operating on the basis of neural networks and making independent decisions.
Loyal Wingman is a fairly large device. Its length is 11 meters and a width of 11,7 meters. It has one jet engine. The main design feature of the UAV can be called the modular principle: depending on the nature of the task, the device will be able to take various loads. First of all, most likely, we are talking about various sensors that can 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 3700 kilometers (probably a ferry), Loyal Wingman will be able to accompany manned fighters throughout the flight, regardless of the nature of the combat mission. Among the stated goals are reconnaissance, strike missions, jamming and so on. In general, it is multifunctionality that underlies the prospective UAV. At the same time, it will be possible to use a variety of platforms for him. As the bmpd military blog notes, it can be both F-35A and F / A-18F combat fighters, and EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft, as well as Boeing P-8A patrol aircraft and Boeing E-7A Wedgetail early warning radar aircraft.
As for the timing, it is very difficult to say something specific. Innovation of 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 shortly after them the first flight of the device is expected. In total, three flight prototypes of Loyal Wingman are involved in the tests. The tests will be conducted at the Woomera rocket and space range in South Australia.
“No panic, I'm close”
There is almost no doubt that the concept of an unmanned slave will receive a ticket to life. In addition to stealth technology and the so-called "weapons 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 begin to develop the above-mentioned "full-fledged" autonomous drones - UAVs that can independently decide on the use of weapons. But this immediately raises several inconvenient political, moral and ethical issues. For example, how to protect the device from interception by the enemy? And can artificial intelligence be entrusted with the right to decide who lives and who dies? At the same time, an unmanned wingman is always (or almost always) in the pilot's field of vision, who “intuitively” senses the situation and can give the UAV correct instructions. First, it will be reconnaissance and guidance, and then - attacks on 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 test site in Arizona, Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, along with the U.S. Air Force research laboratory, conducted the first flight of the unmanned XQ-58A Valkyrie technology demonstrator. He is seen as an unmanned aerial follower for the F-35 and F-22 Raptor fighters, as well as a number of other winged vehicles. The device is similar to Loyal Wingman in size: it has a length of 9,1 meters with 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, recall, during landing in a strong wind, the device received damage. There is almost no doubt that this will not have a radical effect on UAV tests: 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 then.
In addition to Australia and the USA, other countries decided to take this path. So, at the last year's exhibition in Le Bourget, you could see the layout of the sixth-generation European fighter Next Generation Fighter (NGF), and next - the layout of a large UAV, developed as part of 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 hard to say exactly what the serial “Hunter” in the Russian Ministry of Defense see. So far, he looks not so much as an unmanned slave, but as a demonstrator of heavy multi-functional UAV technologies.