AUSTRALIAN AIRSHOW NEWS: Australia, Boeing to Develop Robotic Wingman Fighter Jet

By Stew Magnuson
“Airpower Teaming System” concept art

Image: Boeing

GEELONG, Australia — The Australian Defence Force and Boeing on Feb. 27 announced an ambitious plan to develop the first autonomous robotic jet fighter that will serve as a wingman to other manned platforms in air battles.

Boeing unveiled a mockup of the “Airpower Teaming System” aircraft on the second day of Avalon – the Australian International Airshow. The technology development program marks a number of firsts for the nation and the U.S. aerospace giant. It would be the first aircraft developed and built in Australia since World War II. For Boeing, it will be its largest monetary investment in an aircraft development program of this type outside the United States.

The program also makes a statement to the world that Australia is no longer content to be merely a buyer of military equipment, but has ambitions to be a developer and exporter as well, said Australian Minister of Defence Christopher Pyne. “This is all testament to the fact that we are undergoing our largest buildup of our military capability in our peacetime history — $200 billion over the next 10 years,” Pyne said.

“It is a red letter day,” Pyne said of the Airpower Teaming System announcement. “It is a very significant day for the air force, but it is also a very significant day for all those Australians who dream to be part of a big project that makes a difference to our military capability and our industrial capability,” he told reporters after the aircraft’s unveiling.

The nation’s ambition is to be the world leader in autonomous jet fighters, Pyne said. “We are at the forefront of it. We have taken the first step, and that means we should be the great beneficiaries of it.”

The Australian Defence Department has committed to spend $40 million over the next four years for the project with Boeing adding an undisclosed amount of its internal research-and-development funds.

There is a lot of work remaining on the program and Pyne admitted that $40 million isn’t a lot when it comes to developing new aircraft.

“With all concepts they may or may not come to fruition, but you have to be able to take a risk in business, in the defense industry in building our capabilities. Not all those risks necessarily come off,” Pyne said.

The “loyal” wingman concept calls for low-cost unmanned aircraft to accompany fighter jets and surveillance aircraft into battle to serve as decoys, sensor platforms, or weapon carriers. They would be controlled by pilots, or from the ground, and must fly semi-autonomously so they don’t put an undue burden on aviators. They could perform high-risk surveillance missions.

“Its concept of course is to be militarized and be able to take out enemy attacks on our much more expensive platforms, so it is designed to be a cheaper platform — a shield if you like — around the more expensive platforms and protect our servicemen and women who might be on” manned aircraft, Pyne said.

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory has also done some developmental work on the wingman concept partnering with Kratos’ unmanned systems division to convert its low-cost target drones to loyal wingmen.

Design work on the Boeing program had been ongoing at the company’s Phantom Works International facilities in Brisbane, although executives declined to say for how long.

As for the aircraft itself, officials and executives also declined to give performance parameters other than saying in a statement that it would be 38 feet long and fly more than 2,000 nautical miles.

“It is competitive. It needs to run and fly who it fights with,” said Shane Arnott, director of Boeing’s Australian Phantom Works. “We cannot slow down who we are supporting. So we need to take off from the same runways. We need to fly at the same speeds.”

The idea to produce a loyal wingman aircraft came from Boeing, who brought the concept to the Australian Ministry of Defence, which has released a number of new policies spelling out its ambitions to be not only a customer of military equipment, but an exporter.

“We’re going to prove that we can do big, audacious programs like this here in Australia,” said Darren Edwards, vice president and managing director of Boeing Defense Australia.

Pyne denied that the program was intended to replace a possible future buy of more Lockheed Martin-built F-35As. It was meant to enhance the F-35’s capabilities not replace them, he said. The Royal Australian Air Force flies the F-35A joint strike fighter and has plans to acquire 72 of the fifth-generation fighters. Arnott said it would not be necessary to modify its F-35As, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, E-7A Wedgetails or EA-18G Growlers to command and control the robotic wingmen.

The new platform will be able to integrate sensor packages and electronic warfare payloads, depending on the customer. The initial market would be the so-called Five Eyes allies — the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. It could reach a market beyond them, he added.

Affordability is key, executives said, as the platform is intended to protect more expensive aircraft.

“We can’t talk about other governments’ interest [in the aircraft], but we can say other governments are interested,” Arnott said. He would not disclose if any other nations have contributed funds to the project.

Boeing executives also declined to name the engine manufacturer, although the one chosen for development will be the one that goes into production, which is the strategy it took developing the T-X jet trainer. To keep costs down, the program will use a commercially available engine, Arnott said.

Arnott said Australia with its low population density and wide open spaces makes it an ideal place to test unmanned aircraft. Boeing has been doing business there for 90 years and has some 5,000 employees in the nation. It has two labs, Boeing Research and Technology — Australia and Boeing Phantom Works International. The company invested $62 million in research and development in Australia in 2018.

Boeing’s Chief Technology Officer Greg Hyslop said a lot of work has already gone into determining how the company intends to manufacture the aircraft. The intention is to build them in Australia although the location hasn’t been chosen yet. Sixteen subcontractors — including BAE Systems Australia — have signed onto the project, he added.

“We have invested as much on how to build the airplane as the airplane itself,” Hyslop said. To keep costs down, “you need to be able to build the machine that builds the machine,” Arnott added. Boeing will use advanced manufacturing techniques should the aircraft go into production, he noted.

Hyslop said Boeing is making significant investments worldwide in unmanned aviation, both commercial and military. “We see a revolution in mobility that is going to happen at some point. ... Autonomous vehicles are going to change how we fight,” he said.

The plan is for first flight of the robotic fighter jet in 2020, which may sound aggressive, but the company has been working on the program in secrecy “for quite some time,” Arnott said. Exactly how long, he declined to say, but long enough for Boeing to be ready to fly in one year, he said.

“This is really a badass looking airplane,” Hyslop added.


Topics: Air Power, Robotics, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Aviation

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