Boeing Defence Australia (BDA) provided an update this week on the progress of the Loyal Wingman project, which will see three prototype autonomous aircraft (Airpower Teaming Systems, or ATS) built for the RAAF under Minor Program Def 6014 .
The first aircraft has now been presented to the Commonwealth, marking the first time in over 50 years that a military aircraft has been designed and built in Australia.
In effect, the program is one part science project and one part product development: RAAF will use the three ATS prototypes to inform future acquisitions in autonomous air vehicles (which are a step-up from remotely-piloted air vehicles), whilst Boeing has its eye on the potentially lucrative export market for affordable air power.
“It’s going to allow Defence to make a more informed decision about how we acquire these systems and how we adapt our air combat strategies accordingly,” Head of Air Force Capability Air Vice Marshal Cath Roberts said in a media update on Tuesday. “Loyal Wingman is a concept demonstrator that has the potential to give Australia a true capability edge.”
The plan is for the ATS to accompany manned aircraft and supplement their capabilities using a variety of different payloads and possibly weapons systems. According to Boeing’s head of program Dr Shane Arnott, the payloads will be carried in the nose of the aircraft, which can be completely detached and swapped out on operations according to different mission profiles. Previous updates have suggested that payloads will also be carried in the belly.
“The nose is completely removable and able to be done so on operations. It is two and half metres long and 1.5 cubic metres in volume,” Dr Arnott said. “That’s a lot of space to take different payloads and sensors. The whole idea is to give flexibility and multi-role capability at a fraction of the cost.”
Neither Boeing nor RAAF would be drawn on what payloads the aircraft will carry, but suggested these could be inferred by the types of missions it will fly and the aircraft it will fly alongside. One possibility is acting as a decoy for fighter jets, triggering enemy air defence systems. Another is flying in formation to create a distributed antenna effect, achieving greater electromagnetic aperture using cheaper sensors on multiple aircraft than one expensive sensor on a single aircraft.
Dr Arnott also said that deployability and non-traditional runway operations are central to the ATS concept but did not elaborate on how this would work.
“It is built for distributed operations,” Dr Arnott said. “We’ve built it for deployability and the approach of being able to containerise it is a concept we’ll be talking about soon.”
The second half of the Loyal Wingman story is the build itself. The wings, for example, are created using the largest resin-infused pieces on any Boeing-made military or commercial aircraft, an approach originally developed for the 787 program.
A number of Australian companies are contributing to the project, including the local subsidiary of BAE Systems, RUAG, Brisbane-based MET, and Allied Data Systems. For many, the opportunity to contribute to the first Australian-built military aircraft in half a century is a point of pride.
“We are very proud to have achieved this success in delivering the landing gear systems,” Terry Miles, General Manager RUAG Australia, said.
“Our team is proud to supply power units to the Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft,” Andrew MacLaurin, Allied Data Systems’ CEO, said. “This initial contract will help support jobs for Allied Data Systems and its subcontractors in NSW.”
Boeing said that no decisions have been made on where the aircraft will be manufactured. The company also declined to answer questions on where the IP resides, what commercial engine the aircraft uses, where the first flight will take place, which other countries are interested (other than the UK and US), what weapons it will carry, or when the next air vehicle will be ready (although did confirm that the next ATS is in fabrication).
The company said only that production is scheduled to begin ‘around the middle of the decade’, that there’s ‘broad interest’ from overseas, and that the first flight will happen ‘before the end of the year.’
The milestone is certainly a historic one for the history of Australian aviation.
“Australia has done components for a long time but has not done a whole aeroplane,” Dr Arnott said. “We are restarting that machine. It’s a real passion project.”