This summer the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) has completed the initial one-year phase of Project Mosquito, a program to develop a flyable technology demonstrator of an unmanned air vehicle that could provide “additive capability” to manned combat aircraft. The aim is to reduce the costs of adding combat mass to the RAF's manned fleet to roughly one-tenth those of manned platforms.
The initial phase focused on exploring “novel design, development, prototyping, manufacture, and support,” with the aim of a future unmanned combat air system (UCAS) that can develop and evolve rapidly and at a low cost. In July 2019, the Dstl announced that Phase 1 contracts had been awarded to three teams, led by Blue Bear Systems Research, Boeing Defence UK, and Callen-Lenz. The latter is part of Team Blackdawn, which brings in the expertise of Northrop Grumman and Bombardier Aerospace’s UK division headquartered in Belfast. Dstl and its partner agency, the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), expect to make a down-select to one or two teams imminently.
For Phase 2 of Project Mosquito, the successful team(s) will each further refine their design and conduct a limited flight test campaign. The project itself is due for completion in mid-2023, and flight-testing of the competing vehicles could begin sometime in 2022. The aim of Mosquito is to produce a technology demonstrator rather than an operational vehicle.
Project Mosquito is part of the wider Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) program, initiated in 2015 by Dstl to study innovative technologies and concepts and how they might be harnessed to provide additional combat air capability with greatly reduced development times and costs. LANCA was subsequently brought into the RCO’s Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative (FCAS TI), although Dstl retains oversight of the technology demonstration project.
Within the FCAS TI framework, the LANCA project is concerned with producing an unmanned “loyal wingman” that adds operational capability to manned aircraft such as the Typhoon and F-35A Lightning and ultimately the FCAS platform itself being developed under Project Tempest.
LANCA is similar in scope to those being undertaken elsewhere. The U.S. Air Force has launched its Skyborg UCAS program and is evaluating the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie—which has already flown several times—as a “loyal wingman.” Boeing Australia has designed a similar Airpower Teaming System vehicle that the Royal Australian Air Force will evaluate in its Loyal Wingman advanced development program. The first of an expected three evaluation vehicles rolled out in May. In Europe Airbus is leading the development of “remote carriers” as part of the Franco-German-Spanish SCAF/FCAS effort. Russia, too, has a manned-unmanned teaming project with the low-observable Sukhoi T-70 Okhotnik UCAS, expected to partner with the Su-57 manned fighter.
All of the projects seek to create a transonic, networked vehicle that makes heavy use of artificial intelligence so that it can make its own decisions within the wider framework of a planned mission and even fly some missions autonomously if desired. Vehicles can be used to augment the manned aircraft in terms of weapons or be used for reconnaissance and defense suppression tasks. The use of multiple air vehicles in coordinated swarms can saturate defenses.
Unmanned vehicles are also well-suited to the more dangerous missions, and the much lower cost of the UCAV means that it can be considered “attritable”: while it is a valuable asset intended for re-use, the loss of one in combat is far less of a setback than that of a manned aircraft.
In the meantime, the RAF has re-established No. 216 Squadron at RAF Waddington to develop “swarming drone” technologies and capability. The RCO’s “Many Drones Make Light Work” project is now in its third and final development phase, with Blue Bear having performed a successful first test in March. Five fixed-wing drones were flown in a series of co-ordinated operations, controlled by a single operator.