A mass market for loyal wingman unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) is rapidly forming as Boeing, in a development partnership with the Australian government, unveiled a mock-up of its Airpower Teaming System aircraft at the Avalon air show near Melbourne, Victoria, on 26 February.
Boeing’s step adds to Kratos Defense & Security Solutions’ efforts to engineer drones capable of teaming with fast-moving manned aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Aerospace analysts say General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman could also soon join the fray.
The vision is to have dozens of cheap and expendable tactical UAVs flying and fighting alongside manned aircraft. The new air force structure is intended to greatly expand the lethality of the US and allied air forces, but at a fraction of the cost of buying and operating expensive fifth-generation stealth aircraft.
Prior to news of the Boeing-Australia deal, the USA had been the only country to explicitly fund and outline an interest in such systems, with the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) “Loyal Wingman” programme. However, Boeing says growing threats from potential adversaries – namely China and Russia – are making this sort of technology more appetising to militaries worldwide.
China and Russia have invested billions of dollars in upgrading their surface-to-air missile defence networks, making it more difficult for the USA and allies to penetrate their airspace in the event of war, even with stealthy fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35, say defence analysts.
What is more, by investing in long-range cruise missiles – and more recently, hypersonic weapons – Beijing and Moscow have the potential to push US aircraft carriers far back from their shores and thus reduce the strike potential of manned aircraft. Some defence analysts worry that adversaries could even destroy expensive stealth aircraft sitting on the ground in the US mainland via missiles from aircraft, submarines or launchers hidden on board civilian container ships.
Against such threats, the USAF and now the Royal Australian Air Force expect there may be strength in numbers. For its part, Boeing believes such a concept would appeal to air forces the world over.
“There are a number of shots on goal within this capability area that have been identified by a number of different governments, not just the US government with the Loyal Wingman programme,” says Shane Arnott, director of Boeing Phantom Works International, the unit helping to develop the new UAV with Australia.
Boeing declines to comment on overcoming possible Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) regulatory hurdles around exporting such an aircraft. However, US President Donald Trump’s administration is lobbying MTCR member states to relax restrictions around so-called “category 1” UAVs – those that can carry a minimum payload of 500kg (1,100lb) and have a range of at least 162nm (300km).
Export regulations aside, there are already signs that the teaming UAV market is quickly expanding. For example, Kratos has more than doubled its number of drone development programmes in the past 12 months and has added manufacturing facilities while making a significant acquisition.
To accommodate its increased workload, last year Kratos opened a 9,300sq m (100,000sq ft) production plant in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. It has also disclosed plans to sign a lease agreement on another manufacturing facility at an undisclosed location, in addition to its Sacramento, California, production site. It also is investing to improve UAV propulsion, having acquired Florida Turbine Technologies, a manufacturer of small turbine engines, for $60 million on 28 February.
Kratos has eight UAVs under development, including six that are funded by customers, the firm said in its fiscal year 2019 earnings call. The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit has contracted Kratos to integrate unspecified sensors on board the Mako UTAP-22, and the AFRL has contracted it to demonstrate its Loyal Wingman concept with the XQ-58A Valkyrie. Kratos’s other four development partners are undisclosed. The company says it expects several more programmes to be under contract by the end of this year.
So-called loyal wingman drones are an idea whose time has come, believes Ken Herbert, a stock analyst with Canaccord Genuity.
“I think the business case is very strong,” he says. “AI and autonomous technology has reached the point where this market is really starting to take off, whether it be for force protection, for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or for strike capability.”
Boeing’s product is conceptually similar to the AFRL’s Loyal Wingman concept and is a demonstrator aircraft. Formally called the Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Programme, Boeing’s initiative is partially funded by the Australian government – to the tune of A$10 million ($7.1 million) per year, for a potential total of A$40 million – and is intended to provide key learnings towards production of the eventual Airpower Teaming System, the company says.
Speaking during the mock-up’s unveiling at the Avalon show, defence minister Christopher Pyne said: “It’s not just a protector for the F-35A, but can also be used with the Wedgetail, Poseidon and other platforms,” pointing to a potential application as a “shield” for such manned surveillance platforms.
“They want to experience by doing, by getting some systems flying and having to play with them,” says Arnott of the Australian government’s plan.
Initial prototypes will not differ much in appearance from an eventual production model of the aircraft, although the guts of the UAV will be highly modifiable, says Boeing. That would allow different military operators to swap payloads such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors, says the company.
“We really approached this very similarly to our commercial side of the business,” says Kristin Robertson, vice-president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems. “Really to pivot off not a specific set of requirements, but rather more of a global market and set of capabilities.”
Boeing expects the UAV to make its first flight in 2020. The company has committed to building three prototypes at an undisclosed location in Australia, and declines to reveal where production examples of the aircraft would be manufactured. The Airpower Teaming System is the first unmanned aircraft designed and built by Boeing outside the USA, the company says.
“Australia presents a unique opportunity for unmanned, because it’s a large country [with] low population density,” says Arnott. “There are lots of wide-open spaces, for us to go and try. Fly, fail, you know – get the success quicker.”
Boeing is also building the demonstrator with large-scale production in mind. “We are actually working the manufacturing system,” says Arnott. “Every part about the affordability here is making sure we know we can hit the price point at mass.”
As part of the effort to keep costs low, the Airpower Teaming System will be powered by a commercial turbofan engine, although the company declines to identify the type selected. Boeing also will not say how much each UAV would cost, but Kratos has claimed that it will be able to produce its air vehicles for as little as $2 million each.
US Air Force
“It is a real disruptive price point,” says Robertson. The aircraft will have “fighter-like capability, at a fraction of the cost,” she says.
Some analysts doubt that Boeing will price its UAV at as low as $2 million apiece, given its larger overheads, and expect an aircraft that is significantly more expensive.
“Just knowing the cost structure differences between Boeing and Kratos, I’d be surprised if Boeing is doing this for that cheap – although it is possible,” Herbert says.
Nonetheless, purchase price is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the total cost of any aircraft, notes T X Hammes, a research fellow at the US National Defense University. He points to the F-35’s operating costs of $35,000 per flying hour, and its bulky, expensive and currently dysfunctional diagnostics infrastructure, the Autonomic Logistics Information System. By contrast, a loyal wingman drone has the potential to be cheap and simple, through the elimination of parts, maintenance costs and personnel.
“Essentially, it’s the difference between a 1962 Volkswagen Bug with four cylinders… and a modern engine in a Ferrari,” he says. “The maintenance between the two: the one you can do in your back yard with a set of six wrenches. The other requires computers and everything else.”
The Airpower Teaming System drone will measure 11.7m (38ft) long and have a range of more than 2,000nm, says Boeing. The company declines to say whether the aircraft’s shape or skin would give it a stealthy radar cross section, although that would appear to be the case, given its configuration. The company has also declined to disclose an expected top speed for the product, but says the UAV would keep pace with modern fighters.
“As you are screaming along at 600kt (1,110km/h) in your Super Hornet, then you have these systems flying around you,” says Arnott. “You’ll have four to six systems that are a logical extension of your fighting capability; they are under your command.” The UAVs will use artificial intelligence software to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft, while maintaining a safe distance between others in the formation, says Boeing.
Proving the aircraft’s autonomous capabilities may be the key to its adoption, says Jia Xu, senior engineer and associate director of the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center at the Rand Corporation.
“There’s definitely issues of trust,” he says. “Will my wingmen run into me? Will they do what I intended them to do? Will I be able to manage the workload of not only managing my own sophisticated airborne platform, while being able to care for these autonomous wingmen?”
If issues around manned-unmanned teaming are resolved, loyal wingman UAVs could profoundly change air battles of the future. Commanders could, for example, offload risky missions in hostile airspace, such as strikes on radar installations, missile sites and surface-to-air missile batteries.
“If you could put up a flight of four fourth-generation aircraft accompanied by eight of these [UAVs], if nothing else, it confuses the enemy radar signature or attack signature. He’s got to address these guys,” says Hammes.
“You can’t afford to let one of these things go by if he’s got two air-to-air missiles on it or two small-diameter bombs. Obviously, it massively complicates the defence.”
Boeing declines to say if its aircraft would be capable of carrying weapons internally or externally. However, beyond lethal missions, such UAVs could also conduct ISR duties, plus electronic warfare tasks, the company says.
“It’s a configurable system,” says Arnott. “The nose has a very significant payload area that is built to enable that sort of multi-mission nature.”
Unlike some of Kratos’s UAVs, which are based on target drones with rocket-assisted take-off abilities, Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System will take off and land conventionally using landing gear.
The aircraft is not designed to land on aircraft carriers, but Robertson says there is nothing in its design stopping the addition of that capability.