Details on the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) “Loyal Wingman” project remain classified and sparse. During the project reveal in Melbourne (Australia) on February 27, 2019, drone-producer Boeing has nevertheless disclosed some juicy bits of information. The “Loyal Wingman” drone, officially designated as “Airpower Teaming System” (AST), will spearhead electronic warfare (EW) and intelligence gathering sorties in contested or denied environments, which are deemed too dangerous for manned assets.
With a performance range of 3,700 km (2,200 miles), the unmanned aerial vehicle’s (UAV) airframe will receive a low-observability coating that will significantly boost its survivability in sensor-rich and hostile airspaces. Besides stealth, the “Loyal Wingman” will provide another fifth generation avionic element, namely enhanced networking capability. Towards this objective, the drone is designed to network sensor data, air control, and targeting information with allied airframes such as Australia’s E-7 (airborne early warning and control aircraft), EA-18G Growler (electronic attack aircraft), F/A/-18E/F SuperHornet (fighter jet), and P-8 Poseidon (naval aviation maritime security patrol aircraft). In the future, the UAV will be able to network with other drones and the RAAF’s expanding fleet of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters. These features will allow the “Loyal Wingman” to become a force multiplier, while keeping Australia’s fighter pilots and small airfleet out of harm’s way.
The technology behind the “Loyal Wingman’s” visionary features is Artificial Intelligence (AI). The RAAF’s “Project Jericho” employs AI technology in four key areas: combat cloud, advanced sensing, human-machine augmentation, and autonomous processing. On the battlefield of tomorrow, the RAAF expects that information will be too overwhelming for humans to process in a timely manner. Special purpose AI capabilities, including deep learning algorithms with cutting-edge processing speed, can mitigate this problem and optimize the individual-machine performance. In other words, the “Loyal Wingman” could drastically reduce the time in which a nearby pilot, ground station analyst, or political decision-maker receives key intelligence (and not only unprocessed information). This would provide unprecedented decision-making advantages and improved situational awareness.
AI augmentation could, however, go even further. Experts believe that the “Loyal Wingman” could use its deep learning processors and computing power to study the flight patterns, radar cross sections and combat maneuvers of adversarial aircraft and devise options to outmaneuver them. The UAV could also provide telemetry for intercepting enemy ordnance, using mathematical scheduling and estimation models, and link with other drones for swarming attacks. AI could therefore truly push the technology aboard the “Loyal Wingman” to the edge of fifth generation aerial combat.
The “Loyal Wingman” is expected to embark on its maiden flight in 2020. The United States Air Force is pursuing a similar UAV project called “Skyborg,” which is expected to make its debut in 2023.