“They’re both unmanned air combat vehicles, unmanned platforms that are designed to work in conjunction with fighter aircraft like (the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter) or F-22 or the F-35,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told POLITICO at a recent Reagan National Defense Forum.
He later added: “On the other hand they work in conjunction with bombers like the B-21. … These will be acknowledged classified programs.”
According to defense writer David Hambling at Forbes, “acknowledging the two projects will simplify and speed the development process and allow data to be shared more easily with industry partners.”
Loyal Wingman Concept
He goes on to note that experts tended to focus on the first part of Kendall’s comments—that the drones would be operating side by side with fighter jets.
“This would seem to point to something very like the Air Force’s Loyal Wingman program for scaled-down, low-cost jet fighter drones. These would operate alongside crewed fighters and carry out strike or reconnaissance missions (or even air-to-air combat) with minimal supervision by the human pilots flying with them,” Hambling writes.
“Loyal Wingman-type drones are likely to be a key element in future air warfare. Costing around a tenth as much as a front-line fighter (or less) and make up numbers, adding mass and a capacity to take casualties without losing human pilots. It makes sense that the U.S. Air Force should be pushing ahead with them. Other nations, including Russia, Australia and the U.K., are moving ahead with similar programs; there’s even a Singaporean version in the pipeline, aimed at the export market,” he continues.
According to EurAsian Times, the Chinese military is also making notable headway into the Loyal Wingman concept.
“The U.S. and Russia have paid considerable attention to the loyal wingman concept that pairs up cheaper, more expendable drones with crewed aircraft to aid in missions and as well as serve as decoys sometimes,” the site writes.
“Now, China seems to have made progress on this concept as well, with what appears to be a tailless aircraft design to accompany its indigenous fighter jet,” it adds.
Working With B-21
Meanwhile, as for Kendall’s comments on the new aircraft working with bombers like the B-21, “this is a new capability that no existing program can offer,” Hambling contends.
“The forthcoming B-21 Raider is a highly stealthy aircraft for long-range, strategic strikes, able to penetrate defenses and deliver munitions anywhere on the globe. It relies on not being seen, so it is highly unlikely it would be operating in the same airspace as non-stealthy drones like the existing Loyal Wingmen. In addition, due to their size, Loyal Wingman or not suitable for long-range missions,” he continues.
“This immediately suggests two features of the new aircraft. Firstly, that they are stealthy, and perhaps designed to provide the same sort of minimal radar and infra-red signature as the B-21. This would also chime with their being classified, as generations of USAF stealthy aircraft have been similarly secret to avoid giving away details of the shaping that contributes to their invisibility,” he concludes.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.