WRITER: Andrew McLaughlin
Defence Minister Christopher Pyne has unveiled what could be the first high performance military aircraft designed and built in Australia in more than 60 years.
On Wednesday morning, Minister Pyne revealed the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS), an Australian-designed fighter-sized unmanned system designed to act as a ‘loyal wingman’ in conjunction with high value assets such as the P-8A Poseidon or E-7A Wedgetail, or with combat aircraft like the F-35A or F/A-18F.
The system has been developed in conjunction with the RAAF and the Defence Science & Technology (DST) Group. For the development, Boeing has partnered with companies such as BAE Systems Australia, Ferra Engineering, RUAG Australia, Micro Electronic Technologies, AME Systems, and Allied Data Systems.
“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,” Minister Pyne said in a statement.
“There is significant value investing in innovative, future leaning initiatives like this, particularly in the early conceptual stages where Defence can explore concepts and define the role such capabilities can play in our national security framework.”
Initially, the ATS will employ electronic warfare or sensor payloads, but could eventually be adapted to carry weapons. At 38 feet in length, the air vehicle is about the size of an F-16, and features advanced composite construction and radar cross-section signature management in the form of shaping, materials and aligned edges.
But cost has also been a key driver of the ATS program, so the use of the expensive composite structures and low-observable shaping and materials has been offset by the substantial use of commercial and military-off-the-shelf (COTS/MOTS) components to ensure the air vehicle remains at an acceptably ‘attritable’ unit cost.
ATS features artificial intelligence to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft. It will have a range of more than 3,000 km, giving it a four to five-hour combat endurance, well beyond that of manned fighter-sized aircraft.
“The Boeing Airpower Teaming System will provide a disruptive advantage for allied forces’ manned/unmanned missions,” vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems, Kristin Robertson said.
“With its ability to reconfigure quickly and perform different types of missions in tandem with other aircraft, our newest addition to Boeing’s portfolio will truly be a force multiplier as it protects and projects air power.”
Designed by Boeing Phantom Works in Brisbane, the company’s largest advanced concept development office outside of the US, if ATS successfully proceeds to production it will be the first high-performance combat aircraft of Australian origin built since the Jindivik drone of the 1950s.
That said, the ATS leverages ‘big Boeing’s’ extensive experience in manned and unmanned systems development, including the X-45 of the mid 2000s and, more recently, the US Navy’s MQ-25 program for which Boeing was selected last August.
“This will be Boeing’s first unmanned aircraft designed and engineered in Australia and represents the company’s largest investment of its kind outside of the United States,” said Minister Pyne.
Phantom Works has a team of more than 200 engineers and support staff in Australia. Boeing says Australia is ideally placed to develop such a capability due to its expertise in the various engineering fields, as well as its vast airspace, government’s openness to support an indigenous defence industry, and the airspace regulator’s progressive view towards unmanned systems.