A Kratos Defense XQ-58A Valkyrie loyal wingman drone (left) alongside an F-35 and F-22. Photo: US Air Force

Major military powers are increasingly fielding loyal wingman drones, deployments that promise to revolutionize aerial warfare while simultaneously posing stark operational, moral and political challenges.  

Loyal wingman drones are designed to fly alongside manned aircraft, acting as a force multiplier and enhancing the capabilities of the latter. Australia, China, India, Russia and the US have all fielded their respective designs to complement their existing inventories of manned combat aircraft.

Last year, Australia tested the Loyal Wingman drone, which introduced crewed–autonomous teaming technologies between itself and other aircraft in the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) inventory, such as the F-35A Lightning II, F/A-18F Super Hornet and E-7A Wedgetail.

It is designed to perform a variety of roles such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, communications relay, and both kinetic and non-kinetic strike capabilities. It is not a remotely piloted drone but operates with a high degree of autonomy to relieve unnecessary burdens from pilots and ground crew.

The same year, China unveiled its FH-97 loyal wingman drone concept, which is envisioned to carry different types of weapons and have swarm and electronic warfare capabilities. Like the Australian Loyal Wingman, it is a medium-range, high-speed drone that can carry out reconnaissance, targeting, artillery spotting, battle damage assessment and attacks on critical locations and facilities.

In addition, the FH-97 carries the smaller FH-901 drone to attack maneuvering or pinpoint targets.

China’s FH-97 drone on display. Image: Xinhua

India also last year unveiled its Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) unmanned wingman concept,  which is intended to operate alongside its Tejas Mk1 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). It is capable of stealthily penetrating enemy air defenses and delivering a strike 700 kilometers inside enemy territory.

The CATS is also envisioned to extend the range of the LCA’s sensors and enhance its operational flexibility by performing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and combat operations. It can carry two new-generation short-range or beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles externally, and the Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW) anti-runway weapon internally.

Meanwhile Russia last year tested its Okhotnik-B heavy attack drone in an air-to-air combat simulation at the Ashuluk training grounds, an exercise that aimed to assess its compatibility with the Su-57 stealth fighter.

The tests put the Okhotnik in a fighter-interceptor role with simulated air-to-air missiles, which allowed for assessments of the coupling of the drone’s avionics with missile guidance systems and lead Su-57 fighters. Okhotnik is claimed to be fully “robotized”, which means it can make independent combat decisions except for actual weapons deployment, which is left to the operator.

The US Air Force has made fielding unmanned wingman drones a top priority. In recent years, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) funded the development of the Kratos Defense XQ-58A Valkyrie loyal wingman.

It is an expendable stealthy design meant to replace some types of tactical aircraft in the US inventory and provide an unmanned escort or wingman alongside F-22 and F-35 fighters, the B-21 bomber, or Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.

The emergence of loyal wingman drones reflects the need for mass-produced, expendable aircraft to be used in a great power conflict. These craft give a numbers advantage to their operators, acting as mass decoys, a swarming force, or force multiplier complementing manned aircraft.

These drones can also be used to extend the sensor ranges of manned aircraft, operating in areas that are deemed too dangerous for the latter due to the presence of advanced surface-to-air defenses or aerial threats.

The S-70 Okhotnik-B, also referred to as Hunter-B, is a Russian-made stealth-heavy unmanned combat aerial vehicle. Image: Youtube / Screengrab

Loyal wingman drones can collect data in heavily defended areas and relay them to their operators beyond the range of enemy air defenses. They can also extend weapons ranges by designating targets with onboard target designators, while the launching manned aircraft remains electronically silent and out of enemy weapons range.

However, as revolutionary loyal wingman drones may seem to be, their use also raises significant moral issues. Loyal wingman drones do not have the instinctive human touch of pilots, with drone operators lacking immediate situational awareness from the drone’s perspective, which makes drones vulnerable to manned fighters.

AI also cannot replicate human ingenuity, tenacity and survival skills. As such, unless technological advances can duplicate the thought processes in the closed chaos of the human mind, AI will continue to serve as a tool to augment human decision-making, rather than serve as an outright replacement.

Controversially, loyal wingman drones are possibly just a software upgrade from performing combat missions autonomously, and perhaps even better than the best pilots. Unmanned craft are not subject to human physical limitations, and thus can fly faster, maneuver better and shoot more accurately considering ever-improving sensors, computers and AI-driven applications.

To be sure, the idea of an AI weapon autonomously targeting and engaging human threats raises significant ethical questions.

At the same time, the use of loyal wingman drones, alongside the proliferation of other unmanned platforms, may actually raise the threshold for using deadly force instead of decreasing it.

They allow for the use of force without risk to their operators, increasing the incentive to use lethal force to end a crisis scenario quickly and decisively, rather than exhausting diplomatic options first.

That said, the proliferation of loyal wingman drones as a part of the larger phenomenon of the “dronification” of warfare presents significant tactical, operational and strategic considerations, all of which may ultimately change the way future wars are fought.