New combat robots promise to transform air combat

Singapore’s Kelley Aerospace just unveiled its supersonic boom drone: a stealth and autonomous aircraft capable of carrying out missions alongside manned jets. This is the latest entry in a long list of new high performance combat drones known as “Loyal Wingmen” introduced by countries around the world.

“The Arrow is designed to complement manned aircraft and be a force multiplier on the air battlefield,” the company explains in a backgrounder.

Unlike existing drones like the MQ-9 Reaper, this type are not remotely controlled from the ground but are members of the flying robotic team themselves.

The sleek Arrow features a carbon fiber shell and is said to have minimal radar and infrared signature. The maximum takeoff weight of 37,000 pounds is about half that of the manned F-35 Lightning II, and manufacturers say it will cost just $ 9 to $ 16 million per aircraft (depending on options) – up from more than $ 100 million for the F-35.

Kelley Aerospace says it has already taken more than 100 pre-orders for the Arrow, which will undergo flight tests in the first half of this year.

Arrow takes its place alongside several similar programs. While not all of them are equally ambitious – supersonic flight and stealth are extras – all have several things in common: they are low-cost fighters to increase numbers on the front line, and are destined to go from board to board. drawing to the track at an extraordinary speed. compared to the plane flown with and against which they will fight.

In Australia, Boeing

The loyal Airpower Teaming System winger performed his maiden flight to Woomera last week. Royal Australian Air Force quickly signed a new contract doubling its order to six planes, to around $ 20 million per drone.

In the United States, the Air Force is pursuing the XQ-58A Valkyrie, his own Loyal Wingman made by Kratos. This is a smaller aircraft with a target price of just $ 3 million, but still flies over 600 mph with 1,000 pounds of missiles or bombs. The current focus is on operations with piloted fighters. In December, a Valkyrie flew in tight formation with F-22 and F-35 jets.

This highlights an essential aspect of loyal wingers: The pilots who fly alongside them and the commanders who send them into battle must have complete confidence that the new drones will perform as intended. Building that confidence can be a more difficult challenge than overcoming technical issues. Historically, American commanders did not trust or like unmanned aircraft, and even successful drone programs have often been canceled.

the Russian version, Grom seems to be still at the concept stage; Likewise, the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has shown its Air Combat Team System (CATS) the Aero India 2021 exhibition in Bangalore in the form of a model. The CATS Warrior will have two internal missiles and a sophisticated AESA radar. Meanwhile, the British RAF awarded a contract to build its own Lightweight and affordable fighter aircraft, described as a “loyal stand-alone winger” and is slated to fly in 2023.

In 2019, China posted the LJ-1 drone, which can serve as a target drone or a loyal wingman – the Valkyrie was similarly developed from an existing aerial target simulating a jet fighter. There is little indication of the progress of the Chinese project.

Typically, military aircraft projects progress at a leisurely pace, unfolding over decades. The F-22 Raptor Stemming from the 1981 Advanced Tactical Fighter program, the first prototype flew in 1997 and reached full operational capability in 2007, 26 years after its conception. The F-35 Lightning II started in the Common Affordable Lightweight program in 1994, the first flew in 2006 and reached initial operational capability in 2015, with some issues still taking years to resolve. Some see the F-35 still stuck in testing even now, 26 years later.

Loyal Wingman programs are happening at breakneck speed in comparison. The Valkyrie made its first flight in 2019, only two and a half years after the initial contract. Boeing’s ATS appeared in mock-up form in 2019, with the first flight two years later. The RAF also allows two years between contract award and the first flight.

With manned aircraft, much of the testing process is necessary for the safety of the pilot. When pushing the limits of a new airplane, everything has to be done step by step, checking and evaluating at each step. Other tests include everything from pull a chicken in the engine to test in giant environmental chambers to produce extremes of heat and cold, or by spraying them with salt water and ice. The situation is different for drones which are considered “attriable” – which means that the losses are acceptable where they are necessary, even unnecessary. They look more like missiles, and the safety certification is not the same issue.

No Loyal Wingman is in service yet. As mentioned earlier, the biggest hurdle in getting them up and running can be establishing their reliability and building trust with human team members. But given the time allotted to the first flight, later generations are likely to hit the pace of smartphones, not fighter jets. New digital design processes like Skunk Work’s StarDrive, which produced the Drone Speed ​​Racer in record time, will further reduce development times.

There is little doubt that they will be formidable adversaries in the air, endowed with lightning-fast reflexes, an ability to hunt down several adversaries simultaneously and without risk nor fatigue, panic or overconfidence. AI beat a human pilot 5-0 in simulated engagements led by DARPA last year, and the AI ​​will only get better.

The new drones are seen as auxiliaries to human pilots in an arrangement known as the manned-unmanned team. It is reminiscent of the game known as Centaur chess which had a brief heyday a few years ago when human gamers teamed up with AI to use each other’s strengths. Corn nobody talks about Centaur chess more: the machines are now too good and we have nothing to add.

You can be my winger anytime! ”Iceman told rival pilot Maverick at the end of Top Gun.

“BS,” Maverick replies. “You can be mine.”

For now, drones are still the wingers.

About Mallory Brown

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