‘Loyal Wingman’ to take Australia’s airpower into the next era
7 Mar 2019|

One of the hottest debates among airpower analysts is the role of unmanned systems in future air combat. Australia may have just staked a lead in capability development of unmanned systems with the unveiling of the locally designed and built ‘Loyal Wingman’ unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) that is at the core of the Boeing Air Teaming System. The Loyal Wingman was unveiled in front of Defence Minister Christopher Pyne at the 2019 Avalon Airshow and Defence Expo last week.

Although it’s a Boeing platform, it will be designed and built entirely in Australia. That has some pretty significant implications for the future of Australia’s defence industry. It drives home the point that there’s more to this realm than just naval shipbuilding. It’s also a capability that is being planned with an export market in mind, to Five Eyes partners, and beyond. Australia will be able to position itself as a leading defence exporter of this type of capability as a result of the Loyal Wingman project.

And with its first flight slated for 2020, this is a capability that is not way off in the future with decades-long acquisition cycles. With Loyal Wingman, the aim is to produce an operational capability quickly—within the next few years.

Let’s start with what the platform is and why it’s important. The Loyal Wingman is designed to act as a force multiplier for manned fighters like the F-35A, F/A-18F Super Hornet and E/A-18G Growler, and larger manned aircraft like the E-7A Wedgetail or KC-30A refueller. Its primary role is projecting power forward, while keeping manned platforms out of harm’s way. It also seeks to protect ‘combat enablers’ like the Wedgetail from an adversary’s long-range offensive counter-air capability.

Although the planned aircraft is relatively small, according to Boeing it will have a range of more than 3,700 kilometres. That’s sufficient to operate over the South China Sea flying from RAAF Tindal near Darwin. It will carry integrated sensor packages to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and electronic warfare (EW), and has an internal weapons bay that eventually could be armed with standoff weapons and precision bombs.

It will be able to fly autonomously, rather than being remotely piloted, which is vital. Exploiting trusted autonomy with the human ‘on the loop’ in an oversight role, rather than directly controlling the UCAV in every aspect of its mission ‘in the loop’, is a much more sensible approach to this sort of capability.

The Loyal Wingman can extend Australia’s air defence envelope much further north than would be possible using the F-35 alone. Imagine a swarm of Loyal Wingman UCAVs controlled by a four-ship formation of F-35s undertaking defensive counter-air tasks over the sea–air gap. The less stealthy UCAVs would be geographically located well away from the stealthy F-35s to avoid betraying their location, but close by in terms of being part of a resilient network. The F-35s in turn are networked to a Wedgetail to the rear. The UCAVs are the forward sensor in the ‘sensor to shooter’ link, but can also be a forward shooter, against an adversary equipped with long-range airpower, while the F-35s and Wedgetail can stay out of harm’s way.

Alternatively, in a role to support strike missions, the UCAVs could use their long-range ISR sensors and EW capabilities, and potentially precision-attack munitions, to identify and supress enemy integrated air defences. That would open up a path for the F-35s and fourth-generation aircraft like the Super Hornet and Growler to strike at high-value targets.

In both cases, long-range power projection and protection are of key importance. The Loyal Wingman could restore a significant amount of the long-range strike power the RAAF lost with the retirement of the F-111C in 2010. Although the Wingman is much smaller than the F-111C and carries a smaller payload, the emphasis on low-cost development means more UCAVs can be acquired. Local production will make it easier to keep on acquiring them as and when we need more. This will allow us to exploit combat mass and boost the potential of the RAAF’s future strike and air combat capability through swarming networks of autonomous shooters and sensors.

That’s a good move. One of the major challenges facing the RAAF is that by investing in very high-tech exquisite platforms like the F-35, which exploit technological overmatch against an opponent, the size of the air combat arm is constrained. It becomes a boutique force. In a future crisis against a major-power adversary, that would be a disadvantage—we can’t afford to lose any because we have too few fast jets in the sky. A larger force is better able to exploit Lanchester’s square law to the RAAF’s benefit. The Loyal Wingman begins that process of building a larger, more powerful RAAF, and that’s precisely the path Australia needs to take in preparing for the next war.

The Loyal Wingman will allow Australia to effectively exploit future air combat technology developments coming out of US programs like the US Air Force’s penetrating counter-air and the US Navy’s ‘F/A-XX’ (formerly known as ‘sixth-generation fighter’ projects), which will be based heavily on manned–unmanned teaming technologies. We are taking our first steps towards the types of platforms that could one day replace the F-35, and we are getting there faster than originally planned.

Learning to operate manned and unmanned systems as a network—a ‘system of systems’—is crucial. The key is not just resilient data links that maintain networks, but also the development of trusted autonomy so that platforms like Loyal Wingman don’t have to depend on human control.

That aspect may generate controversy. Advocates of a ban on lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) are sure to challenge this project. Australia must resist calls for projects like Loyal Wingman to be cancelled on ethical or legal grounds. The platforms will depend on trusted autonomy, with humans ‘on the loop’, and any use of force will be made with human oversight. Unlike our adversaries who don’t need to adhere to legal and ethical constraints on LAWs, Western liberal democracies will always need to operate systems like Loyal Wingman with the laws of armed conflict in mind.

Finally, there are the defence industry and export benefits. Boeing Australia is designing and building the Loyal Wingman locally, establishing a sophisticated aerospace design and production capability. This could see Australia energise a new sector of its defence industry, complementing shipbuilding and other high-technology sectors. It would add to our defence export portfolio to key allies, including the Five Eyes countries. It would establish Australia as the leader in a global supply and support chain for Loyal Wingman operators around the world.

Loyal Wingman was the biggest story coming out of Avalon, and it may even surpass the F-35’s blazing performance in the skies as the cutting edge of future Australian airpower.