The Ministry of Defence (MoD) will launch a series of competitions this autumn to progress the selection of an armed loyal wingman drone culminating in a duel between the two finalist – “an operational fly-off” as Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of Air Staff described it. The initiative comes after the abrupt cancellation of Project Mosquito (to develop a loyal wingman drone technology demonstrator for the RAF) earlier this summer. The RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) will run the new process, open to both UK and international industry , and aimed at acquiring a “Mosquito type autonomous combat vehicle” after the Mosquito project itself was cancelled as it was not thought able to achieve an operational drone within the desired timeframe.
The concept of loyal wingman drones is for one or more to fly alongside, or in the vicinity of, a piloted military aircraft – currently for the UK that would be Typhoon and F-35, but in the future, Tempest – with the drones carrying out specific tasks such as surveillance, electronic warfare (i.e. radar jamming), laser guiding weapons onto targets, or air-to-air or air-to-ground strikes. Rather than being directly controlled by an individual pilot on the ground as the UK’s current fleet of Reaper drones are, these drone fly autonomously, sharing data and information with commanders on the ground via the main aircraft.
In addition, loyal wingman drones are supposed to be cheap enough that they can be either entirely expendable or ‘attritable’ (that is not quite expendable, but cheap enough so that it is not a significant event if it is shot down or crashes). However, Aviation International News, who spoke to an RCO insider, said that the focus would now centre on exploring a drone that fits somewhere between Category 1 (expendable airframes) and Category 2 (attritable airframes). According to the source, there is also a Category 3, which is survivable, indicating a larger airframe with stealth and other advanced technology and no doubt much more expensive.
Which drones will win out to take part in the ‘fly-off’ and come out on top as the UK’s loyal wingman drone is hard to predict, not least because the MoD’s criteria appears yet to be fixed. However a few of the likely competitors are already emerging:
Ghost Bat is a loyal wingman drone developed by Boeing’s Australian subsidiary with prototypes already undertaking test flights. The Australian Air Force has ordered 13 with an in-service date of 2024/2025. Originally given the cumbersome title ‘Airpower Teaming System’ (ATS), the drone was re-named earlier this year after a species of predatory bat found only in Australia. Announced in February 2019, the drone has been rapidly developed after its first flight in Feb 2021, and is now reportedly under consideration by the US Air Force as part of its Next Generation Air Dominance Program. The drone is just short of 12 metres long and has a range of around 2,000 nautical miles. It has an eight-and-a-half foot long, ‘snap-on, snap-off’ nose that has around 750 cubic feet of space to carry a variety of electronic payloads which can be swapped between missions to carry out different tasks.
Valkyrie is a ‘low cost’ loyal wingman-type experimental drone developed by US company Kratos. It has undertaken a number of test flights since 2019 as part of the US’ Skyborg programme. Skyborg aims to develop an AI system to control drones autonomously and aid so-called human-machine teaming. Jeffrey Herro, of Kratos Unmanned Systems told DefenseNews that the basic version of each Valkyrie would likely cost between $3 million and $5 million apiece, but as capabilities are added to allow it to carry out a specific mission — such as strike capability, electronic warfare or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — the price could as much as double. Herro predicted the per-unit cost would not top $10 million.
Not to be outdone, BAE Systems has unveiled a loyal wingman drone concept at the Fairford Airshow just weeks after the cancellation of the Mosquito programme. The company revealed a mock-up alongside a small ‘swarming drone’ type called ‘Concept 1’. BAE describes the ‘Concept 2’ drone as “a medium-size UAS designed to substitute or augment existing forces in the Attack, ISR and Control of the Air Roles of Air Power… [It is] attritable, but designed for 100+ sorties.” Promotional material suggested that it could carry 2 air-to-air missiles or up to 12 SPEAR-3 mini cruise missiles. While BAE will no doubt argue in any competition that the MoD should favour UK manufacturers, it has the distinct disadvantage of only being at the concept stage while others have prototypes already flying.
Scaled Composites, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, has been developing an unmanned loyal wingman drone simply called Model 437 . This drone is based on one of the company’s piloted aircraft, the Sierra. While still on the drawing board, the company says the drone will be able to fly around 2,500 miles and carry two missiles.
Predator/Reaper drone manufacturer General Atomics released some details of its proposed loyal wingman drone, Gambit, in spring 2022. While again still only an on-paper concept at this time, the company says Gambit is “an Autonomous Collaborative Platform (ACP)” designed to be produced speedily and at a low acquisition cost. “The jet-powered platform is being built for air dominance and will heavily leverage advances in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. Working alongside human-piloted aircraft, Gambit will enable pilots to see deeper into hostile airspace, detect threats first, and provide time and space for critical decisions and actions” says the company.
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin argues that its vision of a ‘distributed team of diverse unmanned aircraft’ working in concert with manned types is a better alternative to the loyal wingman concept which it argues merely tethers drones to piloted aircraft. It released an video (below) showing four different type of drones – from expendable to what it called ‘exquisite’ (presumably a euphemism for expensive) – working to protect piloted aircraft in order to undertake an attack.
The concept of loyal wingman drones is relatively new and framed as a a protective measure, with drones defending piloted aircraft by helping to detect and neutralise air or ground threats to the pilot. But behind the language of ‘protection’ and ‘defence’, loyal wingman drones are being developed in order to enable attacking aircraft to overcome air defence systems and carry out pre-emptive strikes. Far from being a defensive system, loyal wingman drones will enable a small number of states that can afford to risk multiple $10m aircraft carry out invasive attacks.
Equally of concern is the rapid adoption of AI to support such warfare. While proponents will no doubt argue that such systems will have a human ‘in the loop’ aiming to neutralise concerns about the development of ‘killer robots’, loyal wingman drones are yet another step towards the development of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS).