A swarm of small, fast, cockpit-less fighter jets are flying in a tight circle around an F-35 Lightning II, reacting to its every move, waiting for a command. They will scout ahead, attack or sacrifice themselves if needed, relying on their outstanding reaction time and precision to execute maneuvers that human pilots could never achieve. This is the way many nations envision the air combat of the future.
There are several problems with the current generation of combat aircraft. The first is that they are incredibly expensive. One F-35 costs between $77 million and $102 million. Taking inflation into account, that is almost 200 times more than what the state-of-the-art P-51 Mustang cost in 1945. Even ‘cheaper’ stealth fighters like the J-20 or the Su-57 are estimated to have a price tag of at least $50 million, not including massive operating costs.
The second problem is the increasing cost of human (and especially a pilot’s) life. Economically speaking, a life often has an actual, although somewhat vague and fluctuating, dollar rate attached to it. The rate indicates how much a nation is willing to pay to avoid the death of one of its citizens. Not only is that cost steadily rising, but the political consequences of losing a soldier are becoming increasingly acute for many governments. An even bigger problem is the cost of pilot training that is creeping into the tens of millions for the newest stealth fighters requiring exceptional skills to operate.
The answer to both problems is obvious: drones. As many conflicts show, drones are excellent in situations where reconnaissance or ground attack is needed, mostly due to long endurance capabilities. Their pilots can also take greater risks. That is why, for example, the United States continues to lose its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) while performing missions in hostile environments without batting an eye.
But there is a difference between long-endurance missions in uncontested environments and peer-to-peer combat. Coordinated ground attack and support, and especially air to air combat, poses several challenges for the current generation of drones.
One of those challenges is ethical, as many national and international restrictions require a human to make the decision to kill. Another one is the risk of electronic attacks, connection issues, and other communication interference. Lastly, most current drones, even the stealth ones, are not exactly built for pitched combat. Pretty much anything that flies can carry air-to-air missiles but attaching a Sidewinder to an MQ-9 Reaper does not turn a slow, clunky drone into a fighter.
Nevertheless, combat drones can not only cut costs and save pilot lives, but they also have all the prerequisites to be better than humans at fighting. They have a faster reaction time than any human and can execute complex procedures with unrivalled precision. Complicated tasks, such as air combat, rely on both of those skills. Psychology also plays a part. Pilots can be scared, intimidated, or become sloppy after not practicing for several months, while computers do not have that issue. Add to that the ability to endure G-forces that would crush a human into a pancake, and it comes as no surprise that artificial intelligence (AI) will easily beat the best fighter pilots in a dogfight.
So, the ideal here is to have combat-capable drones controlled by an advanced AI with a pilot somewhere nearby overseeing and directing their actions to avoid mistakes in judgement and any legal issues. UAVs must function alongside manned fighters, acting as one system, utilizing the computer’s reaction time and precision, but relying on humans for judgement.
That is exactly the premise of a concept nicknamed “loyal wingman”, one of the trending buzzwords in the world of military aviation.
Teaming up systems
The first steps towards the concept were made in 2014, when the Dassault nEUROn stealth drone performed a much-publicized formation flight with a Rafale fighter and a Falcon 7X business jet. Although the flight was human-controlled, one of the aims of the nEUROn program, launched in early 2000s, was to test algorithms necessary for autonomous combat performance and the place of human factor in the mission loop. That is to develop a framework for actions of AI-controlled drones in a combat environment.
The task is difficult. If the concept of “loyal wingman” is to be fully realized, we are talking not only about cooperation between numerous drones and their ability to take initiatives, perform attacks, and react to threats, but also to rely on one pilot to approve decisions and control in critical situations. An algorithm for multiple machines performing as a team with a human need to be developed.
In 2018, Airbus announced that it had successfully tested a manned-unmanned teaming technology, where five target drones performed as a team while being controlled by an airborne mission group commander. A special human-machine interface, teaming and swarming algorithms, and mission management systems were demonstrated, resulting in a ballet of jet-powered drones in the air over the Baltic Sea. It was a demonstration of a “system of systems” (another buzzword), meaning the ability of different systems to pool their strengths to reach a performance exceeding the sum of its parts.
Although the mission of the “loyal wingman” software is clear, there are several approaches to hardware. The most obvious is to develop unmanned versions of actual combat jets, something several 5++ generation and 6th generation fighter projects are expected to have
. Russia’s apparently discontinued MiG-41 program, and the United States Navy’s F/A-XX program among others, were intended to develop unmanned jets for especially dangerous missions. While this would solve the pilot problem, it still fails to mitigate the rising aircraft costs.
Another approach is the idea of having a swarm of purpose-built disposable drones. Airbus’ test was part of the development of the Future Combat Air System, a joint European 6th-generation fighter project intended to capitalize on the nEUROn’s research. From the ground up, it was designed as a team composed of a new manned fighter jet and several “remote carriers”, small and medium parasite UAVs. Their exact functions and capabilities may vary, with the smaller ones apparently being intended for Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR), as well as shielding manned aircraft from enemy fire.
Some such aircraft could also perform narrowly focused attack missions, carrying air-to-air missiles to extend their range. This concept is currently being explored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in its LongShot program, which aims to develop small disposable drones carried by fighters and bombers. Launched at a long range, such drones would have the purpose of closing the distance to the enemy before launching missiles, acting as a booster stage for carious guided weapons.
Yet another way would be to combine the capabilities of various approaches by having cheaper, smaller versions of fighter jets, or rather small cheap drones with a capability to carry weapons. This kind of “loyal wingmen” is by far the most developed, or at least the most publicized at the present time.
Flight of the Valkyrie-ish
The poster child for the mixed approach is the XQ-58 Valkyrie. Often described as an “unmanned fighter jet”, it is a technology demonstrator developed by US aerospace industry newcomer Kratos Defence & Security Solutions and had been undergoing continuous testing since 2019. According to the manufacturer, the aircraft can reach high-subsonic speeds, has decent maneuverability and stealth characteristics, and can carry up to 250 kilograms of ordinance in internal weapon bays. The final production version is predicted to cost between $2 and $3 million, on par with some anti-air missiles. The company also offers even cheaper non-stealthy UTAP-22 Mako “loyal wingman” based on their aerial target drone.
In 2020, Kratos received a contract for the United States Air Force’s Skyborg program, intended to further develop the “loyal wingman” concept. The program has an emphasis on AI systems that could both control drones and act as co-pilots on manned aircraft. Initially the program saw 13 companies offering hardware and software solutions to be used in upcoming loyal wingmen. In early 2021 three were selected for further work.
General Atomics was also selected, and its proposal is curious. Instead of developing a low-cost clean-sheet design, the company offered a modified MQ-20 Avenger drone. General Atomics’ promotional material portrayed the aircraft as carrying air-to-air missiles and performing air defense tasks. Since becoming a part of Skyborg, the Avenger has been used to test new software for autonomous flight and likely represents a heavier, long-range loyal wingman.
The third company chosen for the program was Boeing. In mid-2020 it presented its own take on the concept by unveiling the Airpower Teaming System, intended as a drone with fighter-like capabilities, developed by Boeing Australia for the Royal Australian Air Force. Boeing began to intensively test the concept, which it named the MQ-28A Ghost Bat, a year later, with both the Australian and the US service in mind.
At some point between 2021 and 2022 Boeing appeared to have dropped out of the Skyborg program and focused on independently developing the project. Nevertheless, Skyborg continued with three airframes: the MA-20 Avenger, the MQ-58 Valkyrie, and the UTAP-22 Mako. The Skyborg Autonomy Control System, an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm used to control the aircraft, was developed, and flown on a range of aircraft. Finally, the X-62A VISTA (Variable Stability In-Flight Simulator Test Aircraft), a modified F-16 fighter jet, was attached to the program and performed a series of flights becoming the first fully autonomous fighter jet.
The USAF is not the only entity working on the idea of dedicated loyal wingmen. Airbus has been continuously updating its concept of loyal wingmen to accompany the FCAS, unveiling new designs and revamping old ones. The UK-led Tempest project was envisioned with a similar concept in mind. Initially a drone named “Mosquito” was developed, only to be replaced by several cheaper projects designed to accompany Eurofighter Typhoons, F-35s and Tempests.
When the Russian Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik was first unveiled, its capability to function in conjunction with a Su-57 fighter jet was heavily emphasized. So far, its role extends only to reconnaissance and ground attack, as nothing has been said of Okhotnik’s air-to-air potential.
In August 2020, Russian company Kronshtadt, manufacturer of the Orion drone, revealed a mockup of the Grom, a Valkyrie-like loyal wingman, referred to as an unmanned stealth attack aircraft. According to the company, it could protect Russian Su-35 and Su-57 fighter jets from anti-aircraft fire and carry ground attack and reconnaissance missions on its own. However, neither production deadlines nor information regarding its flight characteristics or AI systems have been disclosed, and no information regarding the project has since been revealed.
Japan is another nation currently exploring the concept, announcing the development of Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft (CSUAs). These are medium- and large-sized combat drones made for, respectively, scouting, and air-to-air combat. The Japanese military appears to have been putting more emphasis on autonomous operations of CSUAs and, although little information about the project has been revealed, it is expected to result in a prototype by 2025 and full operational capability by 2035.
China is even more secretive. There is no doubt it is working on its own “loyal wingmen”, but the only breadcrumbs offered are from several articles from the state newspaper Global Times, where Chinese next-generation fighter jets are described as being able to command drones. The size and capabilities of those drones are likely to remain unknown.
One goal, different approaches
So far there is no concrete system defining what does or does not count as a loyal wingman. It is more of a catch-all term, like ‘fighter jets’. A host of different aircraft with wildly varying capabilities, modes or operation and doctrines of use are being defined by the term, although manufacturers and air forces more-or-less agree on what it should mean.
Companies and militaries rarely use the term “loyal wingmen” though, opting instead for less catchy and more precise definitions. In US nomenclature such drones are mostly called Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCAs), emphasizing the aspect of manned-unmanned teaming. Airbus and other members of the FCAS program use the term “remote carriers’ instead. Most manufacturers, including Kratos, Boeing, and General Atomics, opt to refer to their projects simply as a novel type of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
This does not necessarily indicate different approaches but shows that the concept has not yet been finalized. Air forces will not adopt their first loyal wingmen for several years, and their role could still change.
However, the difference in approach when it comes to designing loyal wingmen remains. Some programs work to develop small disposable drones capable of carrying little more than a few kilograms of payload, more reminiscent of missiles that could extend the range of a fighter’s radar. Others work on large, heavy aircraft with ground attack capability, essentially remotely piloted bombers that could be commanded from a fighter jet. Yet others opt to adapt existing drones, big and small, to collaborate with manned aircraft.
These approaches might diverge or merge in the future, as the loyal wingmen concept continues to develop. However, it is already clear that one aspect is going to remain: the manned-unmanned teaming; the core concept that would allow manufacturers to fully exploit the advantages of AI, while also avoiding its shortcomings. The merger between man and machine is going to be central to the future of military aviation, and the sooner air forces adopt this approach, the greater advantages they will have.