With rising tensions between Bejing and Washington, an increasingly assertive China, and greater potential for conflict in the Pacific region, Australia is making decisive moves to toward bolstering its defence capabilities. Within the scope of Australia’s recent 2020 defence strategic update are measures to enhance the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) for a more adverse strategic outlook. The acquisition of advanced long-range strike weapon systems like the AGM-158C LRASM (long-range anti-ship missile) and autonomous combat aircraft in the ‘loyal wingman’ drone project, will give the Royal Australian Air Force much greater offensive capabilities.
The development of autonomous (or remotely controlled) unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) that can complement existing piloted aircraft has been a joint project between Boeing and the Australian Defence Force. The idea behind the project is to be able to bolster air power and squadron numbers without having to increase the number of manned aircraft—an unmanned force multiplier, according to Boeing. A wing leader could conceivably lead a sortie of UCAVs that autonomously, semi-autonomously, or remotely controlled, into combat.
These Loyal Wingman UCAVs have been designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia as part of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System. The first aircraft was rolled out on May 5, 2020—a significant milestone for the project in which the RAAF have invested $40 million. “We look forward to getting the aircraft into flight testing and proving out the unmanned teaming concept. We see global allies with those same mission needs, which is why this program is so important to advancing the development of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System,” said Kristin Roberson, Vice President and general manager of Autonomous Systems for Boeing Defense, Space & Security.
According to the Boeing Airpower Teaming System website this new system will be able to:
• Provide fighter-like performance, measuring 38 feet long (11.7m) and able to fly more than 2,000 nautical miles.
• Integrate sensor packages onboard to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, tactical early warning missions and more.
• Use artificial intelligence to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft.
These UCAVs will extend the RAAF’s air defence envelope further and more flexibly, enabling strike formations where the UCAVs play a suppressive attack role and opening up paths for manned fourth-generation aircraft, like the Super Hornet, to hit high-value targets. A larger airforce, if Lancheser’s square law holds any weight, will be to the RAAF’s benefit and in multiples given the potential agility and range of autonomous wingmen.