If there is one definition of the concept of a ‘loyal wingman’, it is this: an inexpensive unmanned aircraft with enough flight performance to accompany fighters and the intelligence to support them in a semi. -autonomous.
Functions include building a better image of a battlefield, degrading the enemy’s image of that battlefield, crushing the enemy with targets and absorbing its fire missiles. Kinetic attack is a more distant prospect for loyal wingers.
Some of these functions will be performed by these unattractive jet drones when they fly alone, without a supervisory crew in accompanying fighters or surveillance planes.
This article is specifically about the potential applications of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System, a loyal wingman being developed and tested in Australia for the global market. The focus is on what could be generalized as electromagnetic missions. In the absence of detailed information from Boeing, the discussion builds on my assessment of the design in a previous article.
The Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie and Spirit Mosquito – development and demonstration aircraft for the US and UK Air Forces, respectively – have similar potential. But it is the ATS that is likely to enter Royal Australian Air Force service if the concept of a loyal winger proves solid.
Let’s start by looking at the issues with the concept. The first is that it is not certain that fighter pilots in action have the time to manage semi-autonomous aids. Flying them from battle-supervising planes, such as the Boeing E-7 Wedgetails, may be more convenient, but also less useful.
Faithful wingers will not be able to accelerate away from a threat with a speed comparable to that of fighters, so they will be vulnerable at greater distances than fighters. If their mission is to get close to an enemy so that the fighters don’t need them, they could be in great danger. Stealth could help though.
Each of the many functions described below requires a sensor system that must be developed and integrated with the rest of the cell. It involves expense, time and the risk of failure. We should also create tactics.
Nonetheless, loyal wingers have great potential. They can bring three main characteristics to an air campaign: mass, adaptability of function and dispersal survivability.
Mass comes from low prices: an air force can have much more loyal wingers than fighters. Boeing doesn’t give an ATS price, but it does give a useful hint that some payloads might cost more than the unequipped plane. The most expensive would be the radar, which probably won’t cost more than US $ 5 million (AU $ 7 million), so the unequipped plane should be cheaper than that.
At this cost, add payload and ground equipment.
Operation should be extremely cheap, especially since these planes will usually be stockpiled, like missiles.
Being numerous, loyal wingers can make it difficult for an enemy trying to control airspace, highlighting their limited strength of fighters carrying a limited number of air-to-air missiles.
Faithful wingers should be able to operate somewhat independently, as drones typically can. They will be able to maintain a presence in more places than can be covered by valuable fighters. The enemy may find it difficult to counter his presence in any location.
An Air Force could, for example, send an ATS to perform a passive radio frequency reconnaissance scan that would otherwise have required a fighter. The ATS would have deployed with only the sensor needed for this mission, while a fighter would have flown as an expensive set of mostly surplus capabilities.
This brings us to the adaptability of the ATS concept, based on the adaptation of modular noses with different equipment. A passive radio receiver for detecting and locating enemy transmitters would indeed be a common choice, although a cheap sensor of this type might be too inaccurate to support fighters in combat.
In principle, several ATS working together could effectively form a single passive network, inexpensively achieving the precision that would otherwise require a single set of high-quality equipment in a manned aircraft. Getting this job done might not be easy, however.
The passive radio capability could be used in long-term surveillance, with ATS shuttles to and from mission stations to complement, for example, the Wedgetails or P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol vessels. Thanks to their low cost, ATS could be sent closer to the threat than expensive manned aircraft could and, thanks to their speed, closer than traditional surveillance drones, which are generally neither viable nor good. Marlet.
Even if they provided only rough passive radio detection, ATS could spot the precise sensors of large manned aircraft.
A more expensive ATS sensor could be radar. Boeing said the plane will provide its payload with cooling, which most radars require. Here the potential missions are almost as varied as the airborne radar applications, but one stands out: beam to observe targets while friendly fighters keep their radars off and therefore undetected.
Note, however, that an ATS with radar, or even an elaborate passive system, would be difficult to assign.
ATS noses can be fitted with jamming and impersonation equipment, also using the cooling function. Without an operator on board, an ATS could not perform the mission of a Boeing EA-18G Growler electromagnetic attack aircraft, but it could be an interesting substitute for a slow and vulnerable remote jammer: it could use its most high survivability to take its energy radio transmitter closer to radar or enemy communication equipment.
For surveillance or reconnaissance, noses could be fitted with optical sensors, whether they operate in the visual or infrared bands.
An ATS could carry a transponder, becoming a communication node in places where drones of long endurance could not be safely sent. Aircraft, ships or ground forces out of sight of each other could transmit messages via ATS.
In theory, loyal wingers mimicking the signals of friendly fighters could be sent to enemy fighters to spend missiles or retreat. Such drone activity would at least confuse enemy pilots and disrupt their tactics.
Since noses can be swapped between ATSs, any need to maintain or repair an aircraft between flights might not prevent its next mission from happening in the short term.
For any mission, an ATS could take off from many more possible locations than from air bases. In a likely deployment mode, the aircraft, removed from storage as war approached, would be dispersed by road, transported in shipping containers by semi-trailer trucks.
One container looks like another, so an Air Force could buy thousands of them as decoys for a few thousand dollars each.
In theory, the container of an ATS would also contain fuel. It would probably take less than 1,500 liters per flight.
While we wait for Boeing to reveal the specific mode of operation, we can imagine an ATS crew in a truck driving down a straight stretch of road and pulling the plane, perhaps using a crane built into the container. The crew would mount the wing on the fuselage, refuel the plane, and hit the “Run” button on a ground console, which might just be a laptop.
After the mission, the ATS could return to a different location to which the crew had moved or to which another crew was waiting, the goal not being to establish anything as a base that an enemy could. attack.
Northern Australia in particular has thousands of kilometers of straight and flat roads. On the other hand, much of the territory lacks foliage under which a crew and a truck could hide from satellite sensors.
Finally, the survivability of aircrews and ATS could be improved by an air force deploying autonomous trucks that carried empty containers to confuse the enemy.
As a campaign progressed, an operator might discover that there were still plenty of ATS and trucks roaming its territory even though most of its manned fighters had been shot down or reduced to rubbish by aerodrome attacks.
If the other side suffered in the same way, drones could possibly be pretty much all that was left. This consideration increases the importance of potential kinetic functions for loyal wingers, but that’s a discussion for another time.