Next steps for the Ghost Bat
12 Feb 2024|

The future of air combat is about teaming between crewed platforms and autonomous systems rather than relying purely on exquisite stand-alone and extremely expensive crewed platforms. With that mind, the development of the MQ-28A Ghost Bat UAV is an important program for Australian defence industry and for the RAAF. The Boeing Australia Ghost Bat represents a unique Australian opportunity to pursue development of what is commonly referred to as a cooperative combat aircraft (CCA) that forms a key component of next generation air combat capabilities.

Ghost Bat is the first combat aircraft designed and built in Australia in 50 years. It opens a path to Australian involvement in United States’ future air combat capability development including the US Air Force ’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) project. The 2023 defence strategic review was broadly supportive of sustaining and expanding the Ghost Bat, including through collaboration with the US.

The announcement by the Minister of Defence Industry and Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, that the Albanese Government will invest $400m to further develop the Ghost Bat will see delivery of three additional Block 2 versions with enhanced design and improved capability to add to the original eight aircraft already acquired. The new aircraft will allow further testing and development of key aspects of CCA capabilities and how they work with crewed platforms in operational environments.

Local production of the Ghost Bat will result in 350 jobs at Boeing Australia and its supply chain that so far involves 55 companies across the nation. The experience gained in this project can be applied  to other autonomous systems. The Ghost Bat signals development of a new area of technology expertise for Australian defence industry, a crucial step forward..

The opportunity for collaboration with the US is an important part of the project, with the minister noting that ‘…we have an agreement with the US to share this technology and turbo charge its development. The best minds in the US and the best minds in Australia are working together to develop the platforms, payloads, sensors, and system infrastructure to realise the potential of teaming technology as quickly as possible.’ The USAF indicates that it will need around 1,000 CCA platforms to support its NGAD capability and its F-35A joint strike fighters.

The local development and production of Ghost Bat not only opens opportunities for greater collaboration with the US but also potential export opportunities to other nations. For example, might the Ghost Bat find a market in the UK to support its on-going Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) sixth generation fighter project with Japan and Italy, as part of AUKUS Pillar 2. It is worth exploring, because maximising export opportunities increases the likelihood of the project being successful and reduces cost risk.

With these possibilities on the horizon, it will be crucial for Boeing to produce the Ghost Bat at scale and at low cost. Boeing is aiming for the cost of an operational MQ-28A to be around 10% of the current cost of a Joint Strike Fighter—around $8-10 million per aircraft. That still is a lot of money for a single aircraft but means it can be produced in higher numbers, generating greater combat mass for the RAAF.

This is an example of quantity having a quality of its own, particularly if Ghost Bat can de-risk future operations by going into harm’s way and allowing a crewed aircraft to remain outside a hostile threat envelope. At the same time, CCAs enhance the operational effectiveness of platforms such as the F-35A, Wedgetail and P-8A, by acting as forward sensor, EW, and strike platforms. The concept of crewed-autonomous teaming, built around this synergistic partnership, is the rationale for investing in CCAs like Ghost Bat.

This opens up interesting options for force structure development. By investing in larger numbers of lower-cost CCAs, the crewed component—including a follow-on crewed combat aircraft that will eventually replace the USAF F-22 Raptor, and F-35A—can be limited to lower numbers. This reduces program risk by decentralising operational capability across many platforms, rather than developing an exquisite boutique combat aircraft at great expense. Getting that force mix between crewed and autonomous systems correct will only be determined through on-going testing and development, and the Ghost Bat is set to play a key role in this process in Australia, the US and potentially elsewhere.

The lower cost of Ghost Bat, and the lack of a human pilot, means that the aircraft can be ‘attritable’ in warfare. Its purpose is to go into harm’s way, to places and at times when there’s low appetite to risk a human pilot. In this sense, its operational employment needs to emphasise a ‘use and lose if necessary’ approach, rather than the aircraft being seen as something too valuable to be risked.

That will demand not only low unit cost and sustainment cost, but also the ability to produce Ghost Bat’s, and future CCAs, quickly and inexpensively. It is vital that they do not turn into yet another boutique and brittle combat capability with only a small number acquired. To deliver the best effect to joint operations we need to build hundreds of these aircraft locally, with an ability to build more.

It would make sense to consider how CCAs and autonomous systems in general including loitering munitions and armed UAVs for Navy and Army, can be incorporated into the Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance (GWEO) program for future mass production.

Ghost Bat is based on open-source architecture allowing rapid upgrade of the systems on board. This approach will allow the RAAF to best exploit rapid innovation cycles and be responsive to a changing threat environments. Also, exploiting simulation and synthetic environments for design and testing allows flexibility to try out new configurations. A further step that could be considered once the MQ-28A is proven, is a larger MQ-28B that expands payload and performance.

A larger platform able to carry advanced standoff munitions, such as the 1800 km range JASSM-XR, NSM, or LRASM or, indeed, smaller armed UAVs, while equipped with advanced sensors and electronic warfare capabilities, would neatly fill a strike gap left by the retirement of the F-111C in 2010.