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: Read more