If you drive along the main northern road through South Australia with a good set of binoculars, you may soon be able to catch a glimpse of a strange, windowless jet, one that is about to embark on its maiden flight. It’s a prototype of the next big thing in aerial combat: a self-piloted warplane designed to work together with human-piloted aircraft.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Boeing Australia are building this fighterlike plane for possible operational use in the mid-2020s. Trials are set to start this year, and although the RAAF won’t confirm the exact location, the quiet electromagnetic environment, size, and remoteness of the Woomera Prohibited Area make it a likely candidate. Named for ancient Aboriginal spear throwers, Woomera spans an area bigger than North Korea, making it the largest weapons-testing range on the planet.
The autonomous plane, formally called the Airpower Teaming System but often known as “Loyal Wingman,” is 11 meters (38 feet) long and clean cut, with sharp angles offset by soft curves. The look is quietly aggressive.
Three prototypes will be built under a project first revealed by Boeing and the RAAF in February 2019. Those prototypes are not meant to meet predetermined specifications but rather to help aviators and engineers work out the future of air combat. This may be the first experiment to truly portend the end of the era of crewed warplanes.
“We want to explore the viability of an autonomous system and understand the challenges we’ll face,” says RAAF Air Commodore Darren Goldie.
Australia has chipped in US $27 million (AU $40 million), but the bulk of the cost is borne by Boeing, and the company will retain ownership of the three prototypes. Boeing says the project is the largest investment in uncrewed aircraft it’s ever made outside the United States, although a spokesperson would not give an exact figure.
The RAAF already operates a variety of advanced aircraft, such as Lockheed Martin F-35 jets, but these $100 million fighters are increasingly seen as too expensive to send into contested airspace. You don’t swat a fly with a gold mallet. The strategic purpose of the Wingman project is to explore whether comparatively cheap and expendable autonomous fighters could bulk up Australia’s air power. Sheer strength in numbers may prove handy in deterring other regional players, notably China, which are expanding their own fleets.
“Quantity has a quality of its own,” Goldie says. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the full story, on the IEEE website.