The head of the US Air Force has hailed Australia’s Loyal Wingman program and is set to urge the nation’s government to invest in more AI programs as a priority.
The intervention of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall – who leads 700,000 military personnel and oversees the department’s AU$237 billion budget – will come as a huge endorsement to the country’s defence and manufacturing industry.
The Loyal Wingman program – subsequently renamed Ghost Bat – is the first military aircraft to be designed, engineered and built in Australia in more than 50 years. It uses AI to fly alongside both manned and unmanned aircraft in mid-air, hence its previous Australian project name.
“The gamble that I’m making in the tech air case is that we’re going to go ahead with un-crewed combat aircraft,” said Kendall on Tuesday.
“We’re going to use technologies that are coming out of programs like the Australian Loyal Wingman program and others, and we’re going to integrate those into our operational capability, and that it’ll be the first time we’ve done that.
“I think the technologies are there to support this now. And I don’t think we need to wait for more development on that. I am more focused on quality than I am on quantity right now.”
His comments were first reported to The Australian Financial Review, and initially told to the Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institution.
Frank Kendall is the 26th Secretary of the Air Force and one of the most respected military figures in the US, responsible for organising, training, and equipping of both the US Air and Space Forces.
He was directly appointed by President Joe Biden in April last year and has more than 50 years of experience, including being a former VP for Raytheon.
This year, the Loyal Wingman program will accelerate with a focus on sensor and missionisation capabilities.
The planemaker partnered with the RAAF in order to create the aircraft, which measures 11.7 metres long, has a range of 2,000 nautical miles and can deliver fighter-like performance, while also offering intelligence capabilities.
The drones are designed to leverage artificial intelligence to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining a safe distance between other jets.
The Australian government initially ordered three, but has since doubled the size of the fleet, following the Loyal Wingman’s first successful flight in February 2021.
In November, Boeing announced that two Ghost Bat prototypes completed separate test flights in South Australia’s Woomera Range Complex, in the biggest milestone yet for the program.
So far, in excess of 35 local companies have worked on the program such as Whitehorse and Form 2000 – two Australian SMEs that partnered on the manufacture build-to-print components of the aircraft. Other companies include Ferra Engineering, AME Systems, Allied Data Systems and Microelectronic Technologies.