American plane-maker Boeing has revealed a stealthy, robotic fighter jet that could fly into battle alongside old-school manned planes.
But the “loyal wingman” drone, as officials call it, isn't for the U.S. military. The Australian government funded the 'bot's development in the hope of equipping Royal Australian Air Force squadrons with drone wingmen.
Which is not to say American forces won't eventually get their own drone wingmen. The idea of deploying robotic warplanes alongside manned ones dates back to World War II. Australia just took a big step toward updating the concept for the 21st century.
The United States likely won't be far behind.
Boeing's Australian subsidiary unveiled the so-called “Airpower Teaming System” at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon on Feb. 27. The most striking part of the new system is a 38-foot-long, jet-powered drone that Boeing said could carry weapons and sensors and fly as far as 2,000 miles—all while being more affordable than a $100-million manned jet.
The drone has the distinctive, sharp angles of a radar-evading stealth aircraft.
But the most novel part of the Airpower Teaming System is invisible. Algorithms and radio datalinks allow human operators aboard manned planes or on the ground to command the highly autonomous drones.
A manned fighter or other warplane could fly into battle with a large number of cheaper, semi-autonomous drone wingmen. The robots could fly ahead, extending the manned planes' sensor coverage and firing their own weapons at the human crews' command.
“The idea of a robot wingman is that it can keep pace with manned planes, but be tasked out for parts of the mission that you wouldn't send a human teammate to do,” Peter W. Singer, author of Wired for War, told The Daily Beast.
A Boeing marketing video depicts the drone wingmen flying in formation with an F/A-18 fighter and an E-7 radar plane, both of which Boeing builds for the Australian air force. "The Boeing Airpower Teaming System is designed to team with a wide range of existing military aircraft from fighters to commercial derivative aircraft," Ashlee Erwin, a Boeing spokesperson, told The Daily Beast.
In that way, a bunch of expendable drones could beef up a fighter squadron's firepower. It's a compelling concept for a small air force such as Australia's that trains to fight the much larger Chinese air arm. The Australian air force has just 110 fighters. The Chinese air force has 1,400.
“Forces around the world are looking to maximize and extend their current fleets in a way that balances the need for quantity, capability and affordability,” Erwin said. ”
The Australian military plans to begin testing the new drone in 2020 as part of a $30-million program. Australian and Boeing officials said some of Australia's allies also are interested in acquiring the wingman 'bot.
The U.S. military has been tinkering with wingman drones since World War II, Brian Laslie, an air power historian and author of The Air Force Way of War, told The Daily Beast.
“The plan in World War II was to launch a heavy bomber, stripped of everything and packed with explosives and have the crew bail out after taking off,” Laslie said. “It would then be remotely controlled and crashed into its intended target. It just never worked. Aircraft blew up, were shot down, or went into spins and crashed.”
Joseph Kennedy, Jr., brother of future U.S. president John F. Kennedy, died in 1944 while testing a drone B-24.
U.S. efforts to develop robotic wingmen picked up speed in 2015 under the auspices of the Pentagon's secretive Strategic Capabilities Office. Contacted by The Daily Beast, the Office of the Secretary of Defense declined to provide an update on the drone effort. But publicly the Americans have taken a different approach than the Australians have done.
Instead of building a new drone from scratch and pairing it with human wingmen, the Pentagon has modified old F-16s, added software and datalinks and transformed them into drones that can fly alongside manned planes including the latest F-35 stealth fighter.
“You take an F-16 and make it totally unmanned,” then-deputy defense secretary Bob Work explained in March 2016. “The F-16 is a fourth-generation fighter, and pair it with an F-35, a fifth-generation battle network node, and have those two operating together.”
One downside is that an F-16 isn't very stealthy and, as a drone, could give away the location of its human wingmen in their radar-evading planes. The upside is that the U.S. Air Force has hundreds of old F-16s in storage and quickly could transform many of them into robot fighters, potentially for cheap.
And the same software and datalinks that turn an F-16 into a drone could also do the same for other plane types. Cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado have been working on a stealthy target drone that could double as an unmanned fighter.
Help from a robotic wingman comes at a cost. While highly autonomous, a robotic fighter still would require command inputs from human pilots who already have their hands full steering their own planes. “I think there is some hesitancy in certain communities from full acceptance,” Laslie said. “The phrase, ‘I am already task-saturated' came up more than once.”
Still, the idea is catching on. Not to be outdone by Australia and the United States, Japan, China and India also are working on wingman drones. They may have gotten their first big break Down Under, but after decades of development, robot wingmen soon could be coming to air forces all over the world.