Khalem Chapman explores the Loyal Wingman concept, which is growing into one of the biggest unmanned developments in recent years.
Loyal Wingman is a concept that is developing unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) that combine stealth characteristics with performance similar to a fighter. This is about expendable force multipliers, which are low in production, acquisition and operational costs. The concept sees UCAVs supporting pilots autonomously during combat operations, being employed to perform a wide range of tasks in the air-to-air/air-to-ground arenas, aerial escort, electronic warfare (EW), laser targeting, plus intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) tasks.
The concept’s origins date back to the early 2000s as combat losses and the downing of combat pilots in the battlespace became unacceptable. In Operation Desert Storm in 1991, 75 coalition aircraft were destroyed. The famed shoot-down of a US Air Force (USAF) Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk (serial 82-0806, callsign ‘Vega 31’) by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) system during Operation Allied Force over Kosovo in 1999, proved that even the most advanced low observable manned aircraft were vulnerable. While casualties of enemy fire in conflicts continually tracked downwards, so did air forces’ ability to absorb any losses in budget-constrained times. With less appetite for risk to aircrews, the increased value of the aircraft they were flying, and increased lethality of the threats being faced, something needed to change.
Platforms such as the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator began to make controversial waves within the military, proving that unmanned aircraft could perform certain tasks that did not require a human in the cockpit. The Predator also possessed unique qualities that manned aircraft did not, being able to linger over a target area for hours on end, providing uninterrupted reconnaissance for intelligence purposes.
Fast-forward to today and the number of UAVs/UCAVs that have been developed over the past 20 years by different countries has risen exponentially. Business is booming in the UAV industry and the Loyal Wingman concept is set to usher it into a new generation.
Loyal Wingman sees UCAVs operating autonomously in support of manned aircraft. They’ll act as force multipliers, complementing and bulking out combat air mass, providing support and taking the hit away from aircrews in high-threat zones across a variety of dif erent environmental theatres. The concept is gaining traction around the world, providing air arms with platforms that of er unmanned swarming capabilities, once a figment of science fiction but now very much a near-term reality. The concept will see masses of UCAVs forming up and operating like a swarm of bees, flying in synchronised formations with fighter-like performance and the potential to inflict considerable damage on designated targets. Loyal Wingman associates with unmanned swarming, given that both concepts are set out as unmanned force multipliers, built and maintained at low cost to the operator and being truly expendable in combat, whilst providing protection in defensive missions, deterring and confusing enemy forces that are technologically disadvantaged or dealing out damage in of ensive scenarios.
It is still early in the concept development, but over the last two years governments of many of the world’s leading air arms have announced futuristic plans to develop UCAVs that are destined for a Loyal Wingman-type role.
Loyal Wingman concepts are appearing in a variety of shapes and sizes. Larger platforms such as the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie and Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System (ATS) are set to be more expensive, recoverable (yet still expendable in certain circumstances) UCAVs that can be flown back to allied space, controlled by a parent aircraft in the combat zone. Smaller types are also in development, designed to be cheaper and more expendable, they cansimply be abandoned if a mishap befalls it in combat.
These platforms also have a stronger potential to be air-launched, deployed from the rear cargo doors of A400Ms or C-17s, before linking up with the designated aircraft they are ordered to support.
Various governments on the international stage have been rather vocal about developments related to the concept and this year has seen many projects emerging in Australia, China, Russia, the UK and the US.
Publicly, the platform seemingly the farthest along in development path is the Kratos Defense and Security Solutions XQ-58A Valkyrie, which has already made three test flights since it first took to the air on March 5, 2019, at the Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona — less than three years after the company was first contracted to produce the aircraft. This stealthy experimental UCAV builds on the company’s work with the UTAP-22 ‘Mako’, an internally funded research and development project based on its BQM-167 Air Force Subscale Aerial Target (AFSAT) which ran from 2012 until 2015. Originally designated the XQ-222, the Valkyrie was selected for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator (LCASD) programme, which falls under its larger Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) portfolio – ‘attritable’ meaning ‘unmanned’. The aims of these programmes are to design and build UCAVs faster by developing and maturing tools and commercial manufacturing processes in order to reduce the overall time taken in development and production, which will lower costs.
The XQ-58A is designed to complement the USAF’s fifth generation combat aircraft and beyond. In October 2019, a landing incident following the Valkyrie’s third test flight caused damage and further flights were postponed, pending the results of a safety investigation.
The XQ-58 is 28ft 10in (8.8m) long, with a wingspan of 22ft (6.7m). It has a reported maximum speed of 567kts (652mph, 1,050km/h or Mach 0.85), a range of 2,128nm (2,449 miles or 3,951km) and a maximum operating ceiling of 44,997ft (13,715m). The UCAV will be fitted with eight hardpoints split between two weapons bays, each with the capacity to carry up to 550lbs (250kg) of ordinance, including Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) and GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs), giving it a potent ground attack capability if it progresses to frontline combat operations.
AFRL is also working on Skyborg, which features artificial intelligence (AI) software that, when integrated onto an unmanned platform, essentially acts like R2-D2 to Luke Skywalker in an X-Wing star fighter! The programme envisages a wingman that will train, learn and operate from manned aircraft, providing air arms with an AI capability, which can be integrated into Loyal Wingman UCAVs. To provide this capability, the AFRL is working alongside the 412th Test Wing, based at Edwards AFB, California.
The AFRL aims to field an autonomous UCAV prototype, integrated with Skyborg, with an early operational capability (EOC) by 2023. The programme itself of icially stood up in Fiscal Year 2019 via the USAF’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Of ice. A recent request to industry for a modular autonomous UAV with fighter-like performance and open architecture (enabling it to be integrated with new software/hardware) could see Skyborg integrated onto the XQ-58A. The request states that the UCAV must be able to land and take of autonomously, detecting and avoiding obstacles along with adverse weather. If integration and trials with Skyborg are successful, the AI will go on to work with fifth-generation fighters for further testing. It’s an ambitious project filled with both technological and cultural challenges – from getting a sophisticated piece of AI integrated and then persuading those who are working with the platform to trust in an armed vehicle that is more autonomous and relatively unproven… it can be a tricky situation.
Boeing, in partnership with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), unveiled its Airpower Teaming System (ATS) at the Avalon International Airshow in February 2019. The project falls under the RAAF’s Plan Jericho, which sets out to give the air arm an of ensive and defensive edge in the combat zone, tackling evolving technological threats.
Plan Jericho aims to provide the RAAF with autonomous processing (to enhance the quality and speed in machine-based decision-making processes), human-machine augmentation, advanced sensors (to improve target tracking in dif icult environments) and to optimise decision-making processing speed through a combat cloud integrated into the air arm’s fifth-generation combat force. This project also involves the integration of the Loyal Wingman concept through ATS, which is being designed and developed in Australia. The country has invested $40 million into its development, which is Boeing’s largest unmanned aircraft project outside of the US.
Alongside the XQ-58A, the system will be low-cost, stealthy and have fighter-like performance, but will be slightly larger in size. Due to it still being very much in development, not much is known surrounding the characteristics of the ATS. However, Boeing has stated that the UCAV will be 38ft (11.7m) long with a range of more than 2,000nm (2,300 miles/3,700km). Boeing boasts that the ATS can be ‘missionized’ to suit the needs of its operator, adding that the aircraft will have integrated “sensor packages on board to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, tactical early warning missions and more”. The concept suggests it will have the ability to be flown completely through AI or under the control of manned aircraft during combat operations. The company is also investing in giving ATS an augmented reality capability and is set to implement advanced manufacturing techniques using digital production to influence its development and later production. As the system starts to enter production, Boeing will look to export it, having already promoted the UCAV as a ‘global system’. A first flight is on the cards for 2020.
At the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in July 2019, the UK Ministry Of Defence (MOD) announced Project Mosquito under the Lightweight Af ordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) programme of its Combat Air Strategy (CAS). The MOD awarded contracts to Callen-Lenz, Blue Bear and Boeing to design a remote carrier (Loyal Wingman-type UCAV) within 12 months. Following this deadline, one bidder will be selected to develop, produce and later fly a demonstrator, with the MOD aiming for a first flight to take place before 2023.
Along with the RAAF and USAF, the UK has expressed an interest in producing a Loyal Wingman-like UCAV within a short space of time and at low cost to developers and future operators, demonstrating the potential of rapid development and mass production of sophisticated military aircraft, which typically take years, even decades to develop.
However, the UK is aiming for smaller UCAVs to augment frontline Typhoon and F-35B squadrons and, looking ahead, the Tempest sixth-generation fighter. The idea of having a smaller UCAV acting as a Loyal Wingman would make them cheaper and easier to produce, more expendable and deployable from the air.
It also allows for more UCAVs to be acquired and operated as a swarming element in support of manned aircraft in combat operations. The Royal Air Force (RAF) also announced that No 216 Squadron, which formerly operated Lockheed TriStar air-to-air refuelling aircraft, would re-form soon as an experimental unmanned swarming squadron.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to provide the USAF with the ability to deploy large numbers of small UCAVs to be used as low-cost force multipliers, giving US forces the edge in the battlespace. Gremlins, now of icially designated as the X-61A, are designed to be air-launched and air-recoverable, returned to base and prepped for reuse within 24 hours.
The programme explores the technical areas of providing such a capability, including aircraft integration, air-based launch and recovery techniques, high-fidelity analysis, precision digital flight control and relative navigation on a cheap, limited-life airframe design. DARPA envisages that each X-61A will have a service length of 20 missions before the airframe is due for replacement and at little cost, that wouldn’t be a budgetary problem.
The agency has also investigated using F-22/F-35 threat response data to potentially incorporate into the Gremlin software for use in high-risk scenarios and in order to defend itself, which could see Gremlins react in similar ways to fifth-generation aircraft when engaged.
Like Project Mosquito, the X-61A will have the potential to be employed as part of an unmanned swarm.
Many milestones were passed in 2019, from its of icial designation to flight tests of the towed docking device (nicknamed ‘The Bullet’) in both launching and recovering the Gremlin.
A demonstration flight of the X-61A was scheduled to take place in late 2019 using a C-130 Hercules as a launch platform.
A global concept
Airbus Defence and Space announced its Large Remote Carrier (LRC) concept, with a mock-up on display at the Paris Airshow 2019. The company will be working with Pittsburgh-based ANSYS in developing new technology to achieve safe, sophisticated, autonomous UCAV flights by 2030, with the platform being developed for operations alongside the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS). The European FCAS is expected to gain its initial operational capability (IOC) by 2040 and Airbus’ LRC is being developed to be able to link up with the sixth-generation platform via an air combat cloud. The company has suggested that basic remote carrier platforms could be paired with Typhoon fighters starting in the mid-2020s, which would bring its development more in line with the plans of other nations.
In 2018, Airbus successfully completed manned-unmanned teaming (MUT) tests between an aircraft and one of the company’s Do-DT25 aerial target drones, controlled by an airborne mission group commander.
China and Russia are also developing UCAVs that could be employed in a Loyal Wingman role. China’s Hongdu Aviation Industry Group (HAIG), in league with the Shenyang Aerospace University (SAU) and Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute (SADI) – both part of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) – have developed the GJ-11 ‘Sharp Sword’ supersonic stealthy UCAV. The aircraft first flew in 2013, yet its destined mission remains unknown. ‘Sharp Sword’ follows a flying-wing design with stealth characteristics through incorporated composite materials and available information suggests it’s roughly 33ft (10m) long with a wingspan of 46ft (14m). A naval variant of the ‘Sharp Sword’ is also being developed for operations from China’s Type 001A aircraft carrier.
Russia is focused on the development of its Sukhoi Su-70 Okhotnik-B (‘Hunter’). Developed from the Mikoyan Skat, it is designed to work as an unmanned companion to Sukhoi’s Su-57 ‘Felon’ fighter. Along with the ‘Sharp Sword’, the Su-70 follows the same design and characteristics. Available information suggests that it is about 38ft (11.58m) long and has a wingspan of 65ft (20m), with two internal weapons bays.
Powered by one Saturn AL-31F/AL-41F afterburning turbofan engine, the aircraft reportedly has a top speed of 756kts (870mph/1,400km/h), an operational service ceiling of 39,370ft (12,000m) and a range of 3,240nm (3,728 miles/6,000km). The Okhotnik-B has been in development since 2011 and first flew in August 2019 at the Chkalov State Flight Test Centre in Akhtubinsk. Test flights with ‘Felon’ aircraft have occurred since. Like the ‘Sharp Sword’, the Su-70’s true mission is not yet known, but its potential as a Loyal Wingman is apparent, especially with its close developmental relationship with the Su-57.
The Loyal Wingman concept presents sophisticated air arms with a new set of capabilities offering autonomy, increased combat mass and potential for increased air supremacy in a combat zone. The concept will alter the shape of aerial warfare in the coming decades and it promises to be one of the biggest game-changing concepts currently being pursued.
Low acquisition and operational costs mean more platforms can be acquired and fielded in a battlespace that is more agreeable with government budgets in comparison with procuring new manned fighter aircraft – there’s a significant price difference between a $2-million UCAV and a $90-million F-35. The fact that these aircraft are expendable is a huge pro, with pilots and top-of-the-range fighter aircraft becoming more invaluable due to their finite (and costly) numbers, not to mention the manning issues that face today’s air forces. Losing a single Loyal Wingman would be far less problematic than losing a fighter pilot and a brand-new F-35.
Though aircraft combat losses have decreased in recent operations due to coalition forces quickly gaining air supremacy, threats from enemy aircraft and SAM systems are becoming increasingly prevalent. Loyal Wingman also helps to introduce the idea of swarming technology, which will provide operators with a force multiplier in the combat zone, the likes of which have never been seen before, inevitably giving operators a technological and numerical advantage. Tackling an F-22 in air-to-air combat might be an option if you have a mass advantage, but if it had a swarm of Gremlin drones in tow it presents a whole different ball game! It may just mean an adversary couldn’t run the Raptor out of missiles.
Development timescales may be another major advantage, if these concepts can be realised and fielded in quick order, more quickly than modern manned fighters.
While many speculated that manned fighters might very soon be consigned to the past, it’s notable that the latest sixth-generation projects all see manned or optionally manned as being the way ahead. Communications and GPS jamming presents a whole host of problems in the modern combat zone, and future Loyal Wingmen will need a robust approach to the battlespace.
If anything, the era of the UCAV has shown how having a ‘man-in-the-loop’ is a vital link on the combat chain, with genuine nervousness over perceived unmanned drones inflicting lethal force from unseen warriors. Acting as a wingman to a manned fighter would appear to settle any trepidation over warfare becoming too de-humanised.
If Loyal Wingmen are at the service of manned motherships, they need to operate virtually autonomously to avoid overwhelming the pilot in the fighter cockpit, but remain under the direction of the human decision-maker. The operational concept is ultimately sound, and there is every chance that agencies such as DARPA are well advanced in refining the technology. Back in 2016, Kratos demonstrated the ability for two UTAP-22s to fly in formation with a US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II during testing at NAWS China Lake, California. The basic proof of concept exists, the technology is available – the question is not a matter of how, but a matter of when.
Companies and air arms have pondered the idea of developing unmanned versions of well-known manned fighter aircraft. The US has achieved this with the development and active use of McDonnell Douglas QF-4 Phantom II full-scale aerial targets, used to research weapons and defensive systems. The QF-4 was replaced in this role by the Lockheed Martin QF-16 Fighting Falcon, which has since been involved in Loyal Wingman development under a USAF exercise named Have Raider II. The QF-16 was used as a UCAV and attacked a ground target as part of development into the concept.
The idea of autonomously flying previously manned fighter aircraft comes from industry. Lockheed Martin previously stated that the F-16 could perform 90% of its operational roles without the need for a pilot and companies such as Boeing and Saab have also explored developing optionally piloted legacy Hornets and Gripens, respectively.
Although the aircraft numbers for such an endeavour are there, with the USAF having more than 1,000 F-16s, the cost would be too great; as these aircraft age, they need more maintenance. They also cost more, take longer to produce and would not be as expendable. Overall, it would be cheaper and quicker to produce new UCAV types for the role.