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Comment: Looking beyond the Loyal Wingman

written by Charbel Kadib | December 24, 2021
Footage of the first Loyal Wingman unmanned aerial vehicle inflight. (Credit: CPL Craig Barrett)

Australia must begin investigating long-range airpower capability beyond the Loyal Wingman program, writes Charbel Kadib, news editor of Australian Aviation’s sister title Defence Connect.

In collaboration with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Boeing Australia recently advanced the operational readiness of its Airpower Teaming System aircraft, dubbed Loyal Wingman, after demonstrating multiple payloads, semi-autonomous behaviours and crewed-uncrewed teaming in the digital environment.

A month earlier, two Loyal Wingman aircraft completed successful flight missions in South Australia’s Woomera Range Complex, marking the first time the landing gear was raised and engaged.

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This followed an inaugural flight of the Loyal Wingman in February this year.

The program has been lauded as an innovation success, representing the first military combat aircraft designed, developed and manufactured for the ADF in half a century.

Boeing Australia has unveiled a new manufacturing facility to house the development of the unmanned aircraft at Wellcamp Airport in Toowoomba, Queensland.

Once fully operational, the platform, which measures 11.7 metres long and boasts a range of 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 kilometres), is tipped to deliver fighter-like performance, while also offering intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

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By leveraging artificial intelligence, the drones are expected to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other jets.

In lieu of the project’s success thus far, the Commonwealth government doubled its order in March, from three platforms to six.

However, according to Malcom Davis, senior analyst at ASPI, Canberra must not rest on its laurels, but instead look beyond the Loyal Wingman program and begin planning for a successor.

“With the assembly facility in Queensland, the Loyal Wingman project creates the potential for a flourishing aerospace industry that supports not only the manufacture of the aircraft itself, but also the rapid development of new types of air combat capabilities,” he writes.

“It’s this future development potential that needs to be explored quickly.”

Davis points to the urgency surrounding the debate over the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines, adding that Australia similarly can’t afford to “stand still on long-range deterrence and strike”.

“An alternative path for the ADF to project power needs to be considered. Developing and evolving a second-generation Loyal Wingman is a logical next step,” he continues.

Davis welcomes the new approach to RAAF force structure, epitomised by the Loyal Wingman program, stating it is time for a “larger and more powerful air force” amid the growing threat posed by China.

But he adds that greater mass must be matched by greater range and performance, flagging that the Loyal Wingman’s range of 3,700 kilometres would translate to an unrefuelled combat radius of approximately 1,200 kilometres, give or take.

He claims the platform’s range should be extended in response to extensions of China’s anti-access and area-denial envelope.

“Ideally, this challenge would be eased via host-nation support or through airborne refuelling, but it’s possible that support from countries in the region won’t be forthcoming in a crisis, particularly if they’re pressured by China not to offer it,” he warns.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) is also extending its long-range capability.

The Pentagon’s 2021 China military power report referenced the continued development of the PLAAF’s long-range J-20 fighter, which according to the Royal United Services Institute’s Justin Bronk, can attack vital combat-enabler platforms like the KC-30A refueller and the E-7A Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft.

“The J-20’s range of up to 2,700 kilometres means that, if deployed to bases in the South China Sea, it could potentially strike airborne refuellers operating out of northern Australia,” Davis adds.

The H6N bomber, he continues, can also carry air-launched ballistic missiles with a range of 3,500 kilometres, potentially striking targets as far south as Pine Gap.

“We could lose bases through missile strikes as quickly as through diplomatic coercion,” Davis writes.

“As ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer notes, RAAF airborne refuellers extend the time on station of platforms such as the F-35A and extend their range by about 500 kilometres.

“The risk is that increasingly long-range PLAAF airpower will place these airborne refuellers under threat. So, they must be defended. The logistical challenges increase as fighters need to defend the tankers and, in turn, need the tankers to stay on station.”

As such, Davis recommends two options for offsetting such risks, including the acquisition of longer-range fighters, with potential solutions explored as part of the US Air Force next-generation air dominance (NGAD) and US Navy F/A-XX programs.

However, the RAAF could wait until the 2030s to secure this capability.

Alternatively, Davis proposes leveraging Loyal Wingman technology for a future multirole vehicle, capable of both longer-range strike and long-range air defence missions as part of an integrated air and missile defence system, similar to that proposed under Project AIR6500.

“Certainly, the first-generation Loyal Wingman could be employed on one-way flights to contest PLAAF forces in the South China Sea through electronic warfare missions, for example, and offer a forward line of combat air power while leaving crewed platforms to the rear,” he writes.

“But the performance and payload of the Loyal Wingman as it is currently configured would leave it vulnerable to higher performance crewed PLAAF fighters such as the J-20, as well as the J-11 and J-16.”

Davis concludes that evolving the Loyal Wingman presents a “clear path forward” for the RAAF.

“It should take full advantage of rapid digital design and development to produce an evolved aircraft not in decades, but in years, noting that the current aircraft went from concept to first flight in three years,” he concludes.

“In confronting the growing challenge posed by a much more capable PLAAF, the RAAF needs to think in terms of hemispheric airpower projection. That’s a job for Loyal Wingman 2.”

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