To Counter China – Australian Air Force’s Game-Changing ‘Loyal Wingman’ Drone

In what is likely to revolutionize aerial warfare in the 21st century, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) just received its first prototype of a jet-powered ‘Loyal Wingman’ drone. It is the first of three prototypes being produced as part of a unique cooperative effort between Boeing Australia and the RAAF.

China, take note – Australia is not only pursuing bleeding edge defense technology with the U.S., it is also building up its own defense industrial base.

This new drone is expected to fly for the first time later this year. The program furthers the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in U.S. and allied weapons production, such as the Golden Horde ‘thinking munition’ I recently described, that the U.S. Air Force is testing.

This concept is also superficially similar to the U.S. air Force’s XQ-58A Valkyrie, an unmanned and experimental combat aerial vehicle being developed by Kratos, I wrote about previously.

The unmanned Loyal Wingman drone is intended to augment and fly with existing manned combat aircraft. Once fully deployed, this drone will multiply the RAAF’s air combat capabilities at a fraction of the cost of adding more front-line manned fighter aircraft.

It will also serve as a test bed for U.S. and other allied air forces.

The former is especially critical to Australia which is dramatically beefing up its defense capabilities to face an increasingly bellicose China but need to get maximum bang for its buck. Beyond the cost factor, the concept notes The Drive, will additionally infuse “a whole new set of disruptive tactics into an air arm’s playbook.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, according to CNN, said the drones will protect the country’s pricier combat aircraft like F-35 stealth fighters and their pilots. It is also the first aircraft “to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years,” Boeing said in a statement.

The Loyal Wingman, says Boeing, as reported by CNN, will “use artificial intelligence to fly independently, or in support of manned aircraft, while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft.” The 38-foot-long drone has a range of 2,000 miles.

The drones will be able to engage in electronic warfare as well as intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions and swap quickly between those roles, according to Boeing.

The Drive explains that “Boeing sees the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and a certain level of autonomy to be key in really creating a revolutionary capability that can work as a huge force multiplier for existing manned combat aircraft.”

CNN quoted the previous chief of the RAAF, Air Marshal Leo Davies, as saying, “We need the flexibility and agility of the human meshed with the speed of a machine. When we put those together, we’ve got a quite amazing outcome.”

The next few months should show whether this revolutionary concept is ready for prime time. If proven, it should be fast tracked to quickly enter service with the RAAF, and then hopefully followed by the U.S. and other allied air forces.

When dealing with China, the more combat aircraft, and sooner, the better.

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Paul Crespo

Paul Crespo is the Managing Editor of American Defense News. A defense and national security expert, he served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. Paul holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. He is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and President of the Center for American Defense Studies, a national security think tank.

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