On Wednesday, Boeing unveiled its Airpower Teaming System, also referred to as “Loyal Wingman,” at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon. The announcement included a display mock-up of the aircraft that is currently in development, as well as some pertinent details about what the Loyal Wingman program offers not only Australia, but allied nations on the market for this sort of technology.
The Boeing Airpower Teaming System (BATS, though Boeing has preferred the Loyal Wingman moniker thus far) is intended to offer manned aircraft a formation of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (or UCAVs) to serve in support of whatever operation with which they’re tasked. The Loyal Wingman drones would fly alongside manned aircraft, controlled either by their manned escort or by nearby ground assets. They could then conduct some combat operations, provide defensive capabilities, or gather reconnaissance based on commands provided by their human handlers.
According to Boeing, the control interface will not require extensive modifications to the manned aircraft the drones escort, meaning these UCAVs could prove extremely valuable not only to networked fifth-generation fighters like the F-35, but also to fourth-generation fighters that lack the low observability required to operate in contested airspace. These drone wingmen could help protect manned fighters from anti-aircraft fire and dramatically increase the amount of ordnance a single pilot can deliver to a target.
These UCAVs measure 38 feet long and boast a fuel range of around 2,000 nautical miles. Boeing says they’ll be equipped with onboard sensors to enable them to serve in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and electronic warfare roles.
However, where America and allied nations may see some of the most valuable use of these drones could be in accompanying unarmed military aircraft like troop transports and reconnaissance planes in a wartime environment. America’s aircraft carrier strike groups, for instance, rely heavily on the U.S. Navy’s P-8 Poseidon for submarine defense—an unarmed aircraft that isn’t particularly fast or maneuverable. In the event of a near-peer war with a nation like Russia or China, these aircraft could fly with “Loyal Wingman” support, potentially buying them much-needed time to escape an attack or for manned fighters to reach it for support.
Australia has committed nearly $30 million to supplement Boeing’s investment in the program, a significant decision as the nation has not directly funded the development of any aircraft in decades. Although Boeing Defense Australia, the arm of the corporation responsible for the development of the Loyal Wingman program, has not yet indicated whether or not any financial support for the endeavor has come from allies like the United States, they did state that the program anticipates exports to nations within the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance. The Five Eyes alliance is a group of nations that have agreed to joint cooperation for the gathering and analysis of signal intelligence. It’s comprised of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
A prototype Loyal Wingman drone is currently being built, Boeing says, with the goal of producing a total of three operational prototypes to test the program’s concept. Eventually, Boeing intends for Loyal Wingman formations to include between four and six UCAVs. Thus far, Boeing has not provided any details regarding what types of munitions these drones are expected to carry, but they have touted what they expect to be “fighter-like” performance from the drone.
Thus far, drones have largely been used for reconnaissance and air-to-ground engagements, though last year it was revealed that a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper was able to target and destroy another, smaller drone in a test environment using an infrared-guided missile. Still, that’s a long way off from being able to engage a highly competent enemy fighter like Russia’s fourth-generation Su-35, and it remains unclear how much more capable Boeing’s Loyal Wingman drone may be. In such an engagement, the support drones may be better off sacrificing themselves to intercept inbound air-to-air missiles while the manned aircraft makes a hasty escape.
While there may always be a need for a manned presence in combat operations (at least for now), Boeing’s Loyal Wingman program may offer us the first glimpse into how warfare of the future will be conducted: with technology serving as a significant force multiplier in support of human war-fighters.
Watch Boeing’s video showing what the Loyal Wingman can do below:
Revealed! Our new smart, reconfigurable unmanned system teams with other aircraft to protect & project air power. The Boeing Airpower Teaming System – Australian investment & innovation at work! #TheFutureIsBuiltHere #AirpowerTeaming #ausdef
More: https://t.co/77LPYPO93b pic.twitter.com/g0CQjQjxty
— Boeing Australia (@BoeingAustralia) February 26, 2019