Facing current and future budget constraints and a shrinking combat-ready air fleet, the unprecedented push for unmanned aircraft continues.
The US Air Force’s Skyborg program, in particular, aims to integrate autonomous attritable unmanned air vehicle (UAV) technology with open missions systems to enable manned-unmanned teaming.
Skyborg — which sounds like something out of a Terminator movie — must be able to autonomously take off and land, fly in bad weather, and avoid other aircraft, terrain, and obstacles, the Air Force said.
New uninhabited aircraft ideas — whether low-cost, attritable wingmen to manned or unmanned platforms, in swarms, or as stealthier designs that fly alone — are gaining traction in the era of great power competition.
And speaking of new ideas, we have a new kid on the block, so to speak.
Scaled Composites, together with its parent company Northrop Grumman, has unveiled a new unmanned aircraft design, known as the Model 437, which could be configured as a “loyal wingman” intended to work networked together with manned platforms, The War Zone reported.
Named Model 437, the UAS is based on the Model 401 optionally manned concept the company previously developed and flew in 2017 for the first time.
Model 437 is larger, according to the company, but its final configuration depends on customer requirements.
It also features a completely new fuselage and its wings appear to be better optimized for faster speed, as well as for greater efficiency at those speeds.
Northrop Grumman says it could develop an unmanned version of the Model 401 to start test flights to faster advance the Model 437 concept with US Air Force funding, Defense Brief reported.
It should be noted, however, that the company was initially one of five companies taking part in the Skyborg program, but did not make the final cut.
According to the most recent US Air Force announcement, Kratos and GA-ASI will be the final participants of the Skyborg program.
Scaled Composites developed Model 401, which it also refers to as the “Sierra,” in just 24 months and first flew it in October 2017.
Like the Model 401, the Model 437 also has a top-mounted air intake for its engine, which Aviation Week has reported will be a Williams FJ44-series turbofan.
With regards to the new Model 437 design, it is expected to have a range of some 3,000 nautical miles when carrying a load of 4,000 pounds of fuel, and will be able to cruise at around 0.8 Mach, according to Aviation Week.
The drone has an internal centerline payload bay that is designed to carry up to 1,000 pounds of stores or other systems, as well.
The outlet was told said that a pair of AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) or a side-looking radar imaging sensor were two possible loadouts.
Another loyal wingman project is currently also underway in the UK and is known as Project Mosquito.
Northrop Grumman is already part of the team tasked with developing the UAS and will supply its DA/RC (Distributed Autonomy/Responsive Control) technologies, which will enable human-machine collaboration and cooperative mission management.
The goal of £30 million (US$41 million) Project Mosquito is to create a demonstrator for the RAF’s Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) concept with flight tests by the end of 2023, according to Aviation Today.
According to the RAF, these aircraft could have capabilities to target and shoot down enemy aircraft and survive against surface-to-air missiles. They would fly alongside Typhoon, the F-35, or the Tempest to provide protection, survivability, and information as part of the future combat air system.
“We’re taking a revolutionary approach, looking at a game-changing mix of swarming drones and uncrewed fighter aircraft like Mosquito, alongside piloted fighters like Tempest, that will transform the combat battlespace in a way not seen since the advent of the jet age,” Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff, said in a press statement.
Meanwhile, retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, head of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, argues Skyborg aircraft wouldn’t step on the toes of existing unmanned assets.
“They have the potential for dramatically changing the game in the conduct of air operations,” he told Air Force Magazine.
“They can bring … more force inventory at a fraction of the cost of inhabited aircraft, while facilitating the employment of dramatically increased weapons employment capability over a much shorter timeline than required with conventional aircraft.”
Nor does he expect this will mark an era when human pilots always get an unmanned sidekick.
“The spectrum of air operations spans from disaster assistance/humanitarian relief to global thermonuclear war — there are many missions across that spectrum of operations that will require manned aircraft without ‘uninhabited loyal wingman’ flying with them,” said Deptula, a former Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR.
“That said, there will be a large portion of combat air operations” that will need drones, he noted.
These platforms are meant to help, not replace, the human brain, Scharre added.
They can be flown closer to enemy air defenses and sent out on longer missions than legacy manned platforms. Drones could also play a new role as decoy, electronic-warfare, and kinetic strike missions.
It’s too early to speculate on what the right mix of unmanned aircraft might be as these platforms mature and are added into the inventory. Part of that discussion will depend on capabilities, another on cost.
“It will probably take a generation, but the balance of human-inhabited and uninhabited aircraft in the Air Force should shift over time,” Scharre said. He expects that ratio could reach 20 unmanned aircraft to every one manned aircraft.
For instance, each F-35 could have dozens of autonomous partners to make it more capable in battle.
Some believe there’s still more to do to equalize the unmanned enterprise with a service dominated by “fighter jocks,” as Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) recently called those who often snag Air Force promotions.
“I love leather jackets and fighter pilots, but that’s not the future,” the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee chairman said March 20.
“Unmanned aircraft, as we’ve seen with drones, are increasingly important in the world.”
Sources: The War Zone, DefenseBrief.com, Air Force magazine, Aviation Week, Aviation Today