Loyal wingman’s first flight shows fourth industrial revolution in defence capability has arrived
3 Mar 2021|

With the ongoing gloom hanging around Australia’s future submarine program and signs that the future frigate is facing some big problems, it’s great to see some good news out of the Defence Department and its Australian industry partners. And to be honest, it’s really good news. Last weekend, the Boeing Airpower Teaming System, aka the ‘loyal wingman’, successfully completed its first test flight.

This is much bigger than yet another drone taking to the sky. Certainly, the Royal Australian Air Force, Boeing and their 35 industry partners can be justifiably proud of flying the first military aircraft to be designed and built in Australia in more than 50 years. But there’s a lot more here to digest.

The ATS has gone from the start of detailed design to successful flight in three years. Those are the kind of timelines we saw back in the world wars, when technology was simpler, national survival was on the line, and governments didn’t care too much about losing some test pilots in the development process.

In more recent times, the development of combat aircraft has taken decades. The rapid progress of the ATS shows how the ecosystem of technologies that make up the fourth industrial revolution is bringing its transformative potential to the defence sector.

Key elements including advanced digital design technologies that make use of ‘digital twins’ to test and fly a virtual version of the aircraft thousands of times, allowing problems to be identified and addressed well before it takes flight. Boeing is also developing a robotic assembly line to build the aircraft.

When you combine this with the inherent advantages of unmanned systems—like not having to cram in systems to keep the crew alive, which take up space and weight and add to the cost and complexity and development timelines—not only do you get faster development, but you get a relatively small aircraft with both long range and large payload capacity.

Another factor that reduces development risk is that a loyal wingman will be part of a manned–unmanned teaming concept. That means BAE Systems, which is providing the flight controls, doesn’t have to master all of the technologies needed for high levels of autonomy to get the capability into service. Instead, it can incrementally increase autonomy over time as both technology and trust develop.

One element of digital design technologies that holds great promise for the program is that once the technologies that provide the right mix of human control and autonomy are mature and payloads are integrated into the base version of the loyal wingman, developing other variants shouldn’t be too hard. Indeed, Defence has indicated that it envisages an evolving family of aircraft of different sizes.

Of course, the payload is what the loyal wingman brings to the fight. It’s carried in the form of a modular nose that can be rapidly swapped out. Defence has ambitious plans here as well. While the air force has been slow to get armed drones into service, it’s clear it sees the loyal wingman as a combat aircraft. It won’t just be an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform or a flying communications relay but will be equipped with kinetic and non-kinetic weapons. When we combine these two ambitions, it’s possible, for example, that we may see a multi-engine version that’s big enough to serve as a long-range strike platform at a fraction of the cost of a manned bomber.

In short, we’re on the cusp of realising the long-awaited potential of unmanned and autonomous systems to provide smaller militaries with greater mass, greater ability to suffer attrition, and greater ability to create rapidly customised force packages to deliver distributed lethality.

Another thing that has no doubt helped the pace of development is that Defence has programmed a large funding stream in its investment plan to acquire the loyal wingman if development goes well. That is, there’s a clear, funded path from innovation to commercialisation, giving industry the confidence to invest its own money and resources in the knowledge that if the capability matures, Defence will acquire it. It’s telling that Boeing is already proving its assembly processes in low-rate production (three aircraft have been built so far with an order for three more just announced) and working with the Queensland government to establish a facility for production of the mature system.

If the ATS program continues at the rate it’s going, Defence may even have to think about bringing some of that money forward from the second half of the decade. It’s a rare defence acquisition program that can spend money faster than planned.

Of course, technology is one thing; employing it is another. This may be an area where technology is maturing faster than concepts around how to use it. Working out exactly how a swarm of loyal wingmen operates with crewed aircraft will offer many opportunities for innovation not just in tactics, but in organisation, acquisition processes, sustainment and more. And while the air force has been slow to get unmanned systems, particularly armed ones, into service, this could be the positive ‘strategic shock’ that brings deep transformation.

The ATS demonstrates how the fourth industrial revolution is democratising technology for players willing to step up and embrace it. Australia could not have designed and built the F-35. However, it has designed and built an unmanned aerial vehicle that Boeing will use to compete for the US Air Force’s Skyborg program. No doubt Boeing Australia had help from Boeing’s global enterprise, but the ATS shows that Australia’s advanced manufacturing sector is very capable of developing world-leading, internationally competitive technologies when paired with the right partners.

Of course, the success to date of the ATS program makes one ask what’s stopping us from doing similar things in the maritime space in both surface and undersea warfare and meeting the government’s clear intent of rapidly developing sovereign defence capability.

When will Defence and industry step up to deliver an unmanned surface vessel that can team with the navy’s frigates and destroyers, acting as a forward sensor or an arsenal ship with a deep magazine of missiles? In that field, the US Navy is well ahead of us, but does that mean we need to accept a role as a technology taker?