• The Loyal Wingman is RAAF’s headline effort to explore the operational and tactical viability of autonomous combat mass in cooperation with Boeing Defence Australia. (supplied)
    The Loyal Wingman is RAAF’s headline effort to explore the operational and tactical viability of autonomous combat mass in cooperation with Boeing Defence Australia. (supplied)

2020 may one day be seen as the year RAAF truly began pivoting itself around the unmanned future.

Whilst the headlines will be dominated by major decisions on flagship remotely-piloted aircraft (RPAs), unmanned technologies are also starting to shape the workforce. ADM caught up with Air Commodore Darren Goldie, Director-General of Air Combat Capability, to understand a little more about the unmanned future and how RAAF is adapting. 

Spectrum of complexity

First, however, it’s worth laying out some definitions. The word ‘unmanned’ is usually used as an umbrella term for platforms that don’t have a pilot on-board, but reality is a bit more complicated. 

Some aircraft are remotely operated but not remotely piloted. An example is the MC-55 Peregrine, a modified Gulfstream 550, which is flown by a pilot on-board as other personnel remotely operate the aircraft’s electronic warfare (EW) and intelligence gathering capabilities from an off-board extension station. 

Moving further up the spectrum, some aircraft are both remotely operated and remotely piloted. These are the big ticket RPAs like the MQ-4C Triton and the MQ-9 variants such as Reaper and Sky Guardian.

At the far end of the spectrum are autonomous aircraft, which have minimal human involvement. RAAF’s efforts to understand the capabilities of these aircraft fall under the auspices of Minor Program 6014 Phase 1 – a partnership with Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System, or ‘Loyal Wingman’. 

“A key difference is the ‘nearness’ of the technology,” AIRCDRE Goldie said. “Right now we can remotely pilot a system like Triton as soon as it arrives in Australia. Autonomous aviation is still some time away.”

Another difference is the complexity of the task unmanned aircraft are asked to perform. As a rule of thumb, the more cognitively complex the task, the more necessary the human.

“We want to use autonomy for the ‘dull and dangerous’ tasks that might involve getting in harm’s way,” AIRCDRE Goldie said. “High end RPA are expensive and not something we’re necessarily going to put into a conflict just to take one photo.”

Combat mass

The real advantage of future autonomous aircraft from a force projection point of view is the ability to create combat mass. This could become more of a focus for RAAF as Government considers a new Force Structure Plan next year, which will seek to improve elements of the current force mix and decide which have grown or diminished in importance and where to accept risk.

Air Marshal (Ret’d) Leo Davies, who occupied the Chief of Air Force role until June last year, and his predecessor Geoff Brown recently called on Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds to prioritise RAAF’s combat mass, a call that has prompted other commentators to highlight the potential for low-cost unmanned aircraft to improve Australia’s strike capabilities.

The obvious candidate for that role is the Loyal Wingman, which is RAAF’s headline effort to explore the operational and tactical viability of autonomous combat mass in cooperation with Boeing Defence Australia.

“If we’re talking about making the equation more complex for an adversary, that’s possible simply by creating autonomous mass,” AIRCDRE Goldie said. 

Yet even if the Loyal Wingman project one day leads to a fleet of autonomous fighter-like aircraft in RAAF’s inventory, AIRCDRE Goldie warns that adversaries will soon be able to discriminate and target higher-value aircraft. Staying ahead of the curve, in other words, is a continuous investment. 

“It won’t be long after we field that technology before an adversary can target any vulnerabilities between the low-cost unmanned aircraft and the manned aircraft,” AIRCDRE Goldie said. “So it’s a constant battle.”

Next steps

For AIRCDRE Goldie and his team, the immediate next steps in the unmanned domain are to prepare advice for government in regards to major forthcoming acquisitions of remotely-piloted aircraft. 

A decision on whether to acquire the next tranche of MQ-4C Triton aircraft is expected next year. Northrop Grumman has been pushing for Air Force to commit to buying the next four as a block and has prioritised investments in Australia, setting up local Triton program offices in Adelaide and Canberra and appointing Jake Campbell as Australian Triton Program Director.

“The government is about to make a decision around the next lot of air vehicles,” Campbell said to ADM. “We’d hope they’d make a decision to buy those vehicles as a block. 

“We’d then be able to generate more certainty for Australian industry – the business case would get better – which means we’d hopefully also be able to generate more opportunities for Australian industry.”

According to AIRCDRE Goldie, his team is cognisant of industry considerations but is ultimately responsible for providing government with objective advice about whether the capability represents value for money.

“Our job is to tell government whether we think any particular product is worth acquiring and operating,” AIRCDRE Goldie said. “The government wants to satisfy itself that the risk profile justifies the spend, at the current moment. Is now the right time to acquire one, two, or four - or should we wait?" 

“A lot will be down to whether we, as subject matter experts, think the program is sufficiently mature.”

The US Navy is also taking an incremental approach to its Triton acquisition program given the degree of risk. For example, one aircraft operated by Unmanned Patrol Squadron (VUP) 19 in California crashed on a runway in September last year after the landing gear failed to deploy. 

“Even the US Navy is incrementally buying this aircraft, and we need to settle the final operational configuration for production and further develop some of the operational concepts,” AIRCDRE Goldie said.

The Commonwealth has announced a down-select for the  MQ-9B Sky Guardian variant to allow investigation to inform a final decision by Government, planned for 2022. A modified version of the in-service MQ-9A Reaper, the MQ-9B will be operated by the UK and Belgium at this stage. The primary difference between the two variants is that the MQ-9B can be certified to fly in civilian airspace. 

“It’s been through Gate 0 and Gate 1, so it’s now more about what the acquisition looks like,” AIRCDRE Goldie said. “That comes down to our job in terms of working out the basis of provisioning, how many aircraft, where will they be based, what does the cost profile look like, and then government will ultimately decide whether that’s a good way to spend Commonwealth resources.”

Workforce opportunities

The nature of all remotely operated or piloted aircraft also presents an opportunity for Air Force to find efficiencies in the workforce. Just as unmanned aircraft fall somewhere on a spectrum, so too do the jobs that keep those aircraft in the sky.

“We’re starting to think about how we crew unmanned ISR aircraft in a way that means we don’t need a whole workforce on the MQ-4C, a whole other workforce on the MQ-9B, and a third on the P-8A, and so on,” AIRCDRE Goldie said. “We’d then have five or six different workforces all potentially operating in Adelaide and all doing essentially the same thing.”

Instead, Air Force is examining what personnel are able to be shared across multiple platforms and what skill sets are most transferable. 

The MQ-4C Triton and MQ-9 Sky Guardian, for example, require pilots to possess very similar skill sets to traditionally flown aircraft. There are arguably more similarities between the skill sets of Triton pilots and P-8A Poseidon pilots than there are between P8-A Poseidon pilots and F-35 pilots, because the former two platforms are designed to complement each other.

“What we’re really driving towards is co-locating aircrew,” AIRCDRE Goldie said. “So even though the P-8A is physically located in Edinburgh and some Tritons might be physically located in Tindal, the aircrew will all be located in Edinburgh – as may the aircrew for other platforms.

“That means future pilots might fly one of these aircraft one day and another a different day. Personnel that operate sensors are clearly employable on many different aircraft, such as MQ-4C Tritons, MQ-9B Sky Guardians, MC-55 Peregrines, and P-8A Poseidons.

“What we’re trying to do is find efficiencies, particularly in aircraft that have ground stations or extension stations – Triton and Sky Guardian, but also the Peregrine.”

RAAF is also looking into whether the physical requirements expected in current roles remain relevant to an increasingly unmanned future.

“What physical standards will we require for pilots? All those things that are currently considered, like corrective lenses or lower limb injuries, are they all essential if you’re going to fly a Triton?” AIRCDRE Goldie said. “If they’re not, we could open up the recruiting pool quite significantly. When we talk about other crew members the pool might open even further.”

RAAF has already begun investigating the possibilities and aims to have a path forward by the end of the year. 

“I really want to understand the workforce. We’ve embedded crews and other personnel in the US and the UK to start the learning process,” AIRCDRE Goldie said. “By the end of 2020 we’re going to need a good understanding of how we recruit and what we expect.”

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