It is largely accepted that the future of air combat will evolve significantly to include new technologies and concepts of operation, but there is still work underway to examine exactly what this future type of combat will look like.
Unmanned system use of some sort is a given, however, be it the introduction of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) that will be able to carry out the entire operation that a fighter currently does, or ones that can operate as an adjunct to manned operations in one form or another.
The newest concept being developed is the idea of a so-called “loyal wingman,” a low-cost UAV that would be deployed alongside a manned aircraft to either act as a complementary asset or as a decoy to protect the crewed system from offensive air defenses. By keeping costs down, these systems could be acquired and deployed en masse, providing a complementary asset that is ultimately expendable if required.
A surge of developments in this area has been made in recent months, including the first flight of the XQ-58A Valkyrie wingman that took place at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona in March 2019.
The XQ-58A is a high-subsonic vehicle powered by a single turbine engine with a range of some 3,000 miles, launched from a stand using rocket technology and recovered by a parachute. The device was originally designated the XQ-222 in the earlier stages of development by industry partner Kratos.
Two internal weapons bays allow for a 500-pound weapons payload for two GBU-39 small-diameter bombs, while there is also scope for underwing hardpoints to be included.
This testing was carried out under a partnership formed in 2016 between aerial target system manufacturer Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). The program falls under the government’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) research. Lasting 76 minutes, this test was part of the U.S. Air Force’s vision for a low-cost, runway-independent UCAV that could be a complementary asset to aircraft including the F-22 and F-35 fighters, or used separately in swarms.
“XQ-58A is the first example of a class of UAV that is defined by low procurement and operating costs while providing game-changing combat capability,” Doug Szczublewski, AFRL’s XQ-58A program manager, said after the March 2019 flight.
Australia, meanwhile, has selected Boeing as its industry partner for the development of a loyal wingman concept, and in February 2019 the government revealed that an initial concept was being worked on. This is the company’s first UAV development to be designed and engineered in the country.
Dubbed the Airpower Teaming System, the government has pledged some A$10 million per year of investment into the development, with an initial investment ceiling set at A$40 million. Research and development will lead to the establishment of a concept demonstrator under the Loyal Wingman-Advanced Development Program, with a first flight targeted for 2020. This will ultimately be fed into the production of the Airpower Teaming System.
“The partnership will produce a concept demonstrator of a low-cost unmanned ‘loyal wingman’ aircraft, capable of operating in concert with air force’s fifth-generation air combat capability,” Christopher Pyne, minister for the defense industry, said at the time. “There is significant value investing in innovative, future-leaning initiatives like this, particularly in the early conceptual stages where defense can explore concepts and define the role such capabilities can play in our national security framework.”
Boeing said that the system will provide fighter-like performance, be 38 feet long, and will be able to fly some 2,000 nm while carrying payloads including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and electronic warfare sensors. It will use artificial intelligence to allow it to fly independently or in support of the manned aircraft, while ensuring that it maintains a safe distance from other platforms.
During the Farnborough Air Show in 2018, the UK Ministry of Defence revealed its Tempest concept, an effort to develop a replacement for its in-service fighter fleets.
While the model rolled out by then-defense minister Gavin Williamson was seemingly centered on a manned replacement, the government and industry made it clear that they were open to an array of different concepts under Tempest, including introducing unmanned capabilities in one form or another, as well as manned-unmanned teaming.
Furthermore, in February 2019, responding to a query on whether Tempest would be aircraft carrier-capable, Earl Howe, the House of Lords’ minister of defense, clarified that any future acquisition would have to be able to be integrated with the Royal Navy’s two Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) aircraft carriers, including any unmanned counterpart.
“The concept phase of the acquisition program will consider QEC basing for any unmanned force multipliers which may form part of the future combat air system,” he said, suggesting that a wingman for Tempest may be carrier-based.
Williamson also announced in February 2019 that the government was investing in swarm UAV technologies, which would involve network-enabled and expendable drones being deployed en masse to counter enemy air defenses, allowing high-value and manned aircraft such as the F-35 to pass by intact, effectively acting as a loyal wingman.
This effort is to be financed by the Ministry of Defence’s £160 million Transformation Fund, an allocation from the defense budget ringfenced in 2018 to support new technology development. The swarm systems are expected to be ready by the end of this year.
France and Germany are also including this concept in their joint fighter development dubbed the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which is their Tempest equivalent.
A two-year joint concept study contract was awarded to Airbus Defence & Space and Dassault in February 2019. This will result in the companies developing a concept for a next-generation fighter that will be teamed with new weapons capabilities as well as UAVs that the two nations have termed as “remote carriers.” These various elements will be cloud-linked, offering a system of systems approach.
“FCAS is one of the most ambitious European defense programs of the century," said Dirk Hoke, CEO of Airbus Defence & Space, at the time of the contract award. "With today’s contract signature, we are finally setting this high-technology program fully in motion. Both companies are committed to providing the best solutions to our nations with regard to the new generation fighter as well as the systems of systems accompanying it."
This initial work is expected to develop different concepts for FCAS, ahead of a planned operation by 2040. The companies said that they will begin demonstrator programs, which they expect to launch during this year’s Paris Air Show.