LONDON --- Air forces – especially those more advanced and capable – face an overlapping series of tactical, operational and budgetary issues. Though the last 15 years of operations across MENA (Middle East and North African) have seen relatively limited threat environments, participating air forces require highly capable platforms and weapons suitable for short-notice use against a peer competitor.
At base this represents a core problem: a very capable but unused fleet of aircraft is no longer considered acceptable, while a low-cost but low-capability force is of limited practical use. This triple conundrum of capability vs flexibility vs affordability has driven militaries and industry to explore various potential solutions.
To some degree, the arrival of mature but relatively low-performance UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles, as opposed to unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs), such as Predator, has ameliorated some of these difficulties. The alternative – a dedicated, high-performance UCAV – has been much discussed but the cost and risk of such concepts has meant that most of these more capable options remain confined largely to test-beds and demonstrators.
A potential compromise position has recently gained significant ground, most publicly with Boeing’s 2019 launch of its Loyal Wingman platform that has been developed primarily for the Royal Australian Air Force and its Plan Jericho wider future force integration. The core element is an unmanned platform able to operate alongside fighter aircraft, providing high-subsonic or low-supersonic performance alongside a degree of reduced radar cross section (RCS) but at a far lower purchase and operational cost.
These UCAV wingmen are armed and equipped as fighters, can share data with the formation and wider assets and can also be used in higher-threat roles with less concern over survivability.
While the Boeing and others’ efforts have focused on the provision of a completely new platform, an alternative approach has gained ground in the last couple of years. At the 2019 Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) and Paris Air Show, the UK MoD and MBDA independently demonstrated concepts for a ‘swarming pack’ of lighter UCAVs that would accompany and support manned fighters but using far smaller airframes that carry a limited number of weapons or systems.
The UK’s Project Mosquito (part of the larger UAV-focused Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) programme) posited independent aircraft undertaking both an ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) and offensive role, identifying and neutralising threats through a high degree of artificial intelligence (AI) and networked co-operation. A focus on low cost and rapid development suggests that these will not be of fighter size and performance, but likely similar to a large missile.
Concurrently, the Franco-German FCAS programme has also indicate that a large ‘Loyal Wingman’ is part of the wider, mixed-platform Air Combat Cloud approach but the MBDA stand at Paris showed an intermediary platform dubbed ‘Remote Carrier’. These would be air-launched and, like the UK Mosquito, would carry a mixture of systems and weapons payloads to be used in conjunction with other aircraft. Both Mosquito nor Remote Carrier would not be truly independent UCAVs, instead working with other assets.
Neither the Boeing approach nor that of the UK and Franco-German plans are inherently new or original, though they are more focused and have the backing of greater interest and enthusiasm than previous efforts. If the Boeing platform is a ‘Loyal Wingman’, the new European concepts might be termed a ‘Loyal Pack of Hounds’: identifying, flushing and harassing the opposition in a co-ordinated and possibly sacrificial fashion but supporting, rather than replacing the huntsmen.
Boeing’s programme is arguably more mature than similar efforts towards the ‘Loyal Wingman’ concept, while the Mosquito and Remote Carriers are less developmentally advanced but offer potentially a wider applicability to air operations and future combat in general. This article examines what Boeing and others’ propositions offer to forces, to what degree can they help solve the key issues outlined above and what other solutions and approaches exist as an alternative. (end of excerpt)
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