The Rising Cost of Jet Fighters Accelerates Autonomous Jet Development
Kyle Maxey posted on January 24, 2020 |
Expensive jets like the F-35 are accelerating the development of cheaper autonomous aircraft.

In a rebuke to the soaring costs of advanced aircraft, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), in coordination with Boeing, will begin testing a new autonomous fighter it’s calling the “Loyal Wingman.”

First introduced in February 2019, the Loyal Wingman project is aimed at developing a relatively small autonomous aircraft (current designs peg the machine at 11meters long) that will maintain multiple roles during missions.

Currently, Boeing and RAAF partners imagine Loyal Wingman-based aircraft being capable of performing advanced reconnaissance missions, interfering with adversarial electronic infrastructure, and even launching strikes. 

But as the project’s name suggests, the autonomous Loyal Wingman will serve as a sidekick to manned aircraft, most likely those same F-35s that are too expensive (at $103-$108million each) to field en masse.

As is envisioned today, an F-35 manned fighter would be an in-air, rapidly responding, command bridge for several, if not dozens of, Loyal Wingmen. The F-35 would use the sensor packages and weapons aboard its Wingmen to better assess threats and more effectively attack targets. In the event of mid-sortie retaliation, the Loyal Wingman could also be used as a phalanx to protect the pricey and human-operated F-35 from attack.

While the goal of testing the Loyal Wingman is to put the aircraft through its paces and help engineers design better systems for specific operational functions, the end for the Loyal Wingman has been, and will likely always be, the fielding of a massive airborne fleet for little cost.

RAAF Air Commodore Darren Goldie puts it best, “Quantity has a quality of its own.”

As of writing, the RAAF and Boeing are being a bit tight-lipped about the details of the Loyal Wingman’s testing. Trials of the aircraft will begin later this year with the hopes that the first fleet of the machines will be operationally ready by the mid-2020s.


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