Computerised images released by Boeing to promote the Airpower Teaming Systems (Picture: Boeing).
By David Hambling, technology expert
Boeing unveiled a new combat jet in Australia on 27 February.
It is a small unmanned fighter developed under Boeing's Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program and, as the name suggests, its mission is to fly alongside manned jets and work as a team.
Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System (ATS) envisions a future in which unmanned aircraft act as assistants to complement existing aircraft, rather than replacing them.
This is the first time Boeing has produced a new aircraft outside America, and it is aimed squarely at the export market.
The project is being carried out with the aid of AU$40m (£21m) of funding from the Australian government.
It is part of the Australian Air Force’s 'Plan Jericho', which aims to change "from one that uses people to operate machines and cooperate with other people, to a force in which people and machines operate together".
'Plan Jericho' wants machines to become team members rather than being directed like existing drones.
The new aircraft is 12 metres long and has a combat range of 2,000 miles.
It is powered by a single turbofan from a business jet, allowing it to keep up with combat aircraft at 600-plus knots.
It is designed to be modular, with ‘snap-on, snap-off’ payloads so it can quickly be switched from one role to another, for example changing from reconnaissance to electronic warfare.
Boeing will not discuss the Loyal Wingman’s stealth characteristics, but the shaping is not obviously designed to reduce radar signature.
It is strikingly dissimilar to Boeing’s earlier X-45 combat drone prototype, a stealthy design with a blended wing-body.
The Loyal Wingman looks like a fairly straightforward, low-cost aircraft.
It is not meant to be fancy; Loyal Wingman’s big selling point is that it will be extremely cheap compared to manned fighters.
"It is a real disruptive price point," said Kristin Robertson, general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems, without giving away more details.
"Fighter-like capability at a fraction of the cost."
Boeing are not quoting a price, but Kratos, working on a similar system for the US Air Force, are aiming to produce their small unmanned fighters at just £1.5m each. That compares to about £90m each for the RAF’s new F-35 Lightnings.
The Loyal Wingman would operate from the same airfield as the aircraft it accompanies.
Boeing says that later versions may be able to fly from aircraft carriers.
Unlike existing drones like the RAF’s Reapers, which are piloted remotely from a ground station, the Loyal Wingman would be capable of autonomous flight, following a flight plan like a human pilot and using artificial intelligence to maintain a safe distance from other aircraft.
In action, a group of Loyal Wingmen could assist the pilot of a manned aircraft in several ways.
Being cheap and without a human on board to get injured, killed or captured, the jet is expendable.
It will be the first to probe defences, carrying out close reconnaissance against the most heavily defended targets.
The initial version is also designed as an electronic warfare platform, so it can locate and jam the radar guiding surface-to-air missiles.
Looking further ahead, Loyal Wingmen are likely to be equipped with weapons for both surface-to-air and air-to-air roles.
In tests flown at the US Navy’s China Lake facility in 2015, unmanned jets carried out operations alongside a manned Harriet aircraft.
Actions included flying in formation, following a lead aircraft, breaking out of formation, deploying a payload - probably meaning, in this case, dropping a simulated bomb - and re-joining the formation.
The payload was deployed semi-autonomously, meaning that the release was still under the control of a human operator even though the drone was flying itself.
In air-to-air combat, an F-35 pilot could locate and designate targets for Loyal Wingmen using the plane’s superior sensors, while maintaining stealth by not releasing weapons from their own aircraft.
The drones act as ‘missile trucks,’ giving the F-35 greatly increased firepower, rather than dogfighters in their own right.
This concept of manned-unmanned teaming takes advantages of the strengths of the two sides.
The humans provide judgement and intelligence, while the machines make up the numbers and, literally, take the flak.
Boeing’s Loyal Wingman is expected to have its first flight in 2020. Three demonstrator airframes are being built at an undisclosed site in Australia.
One of the most unusual features for a Boeing military aircraft is that it has not been designed with the US military in mind.
The Loyal Wingman is intended for the global market, where many air forces are currently limited to small numbers of expensive aircraft.
"Our newest addition to Boeing’s portfolio will truly be a force multiplier as it protects and projects air power,” says Ms Robertson.
A force multiplier is exactly what any air force aiming to boost numbers and increase its capabilities within the constraints of a tight defence budget is looking for.
A lot of nations will be looking closely at Boeing’s new offering and what it can do for them.