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A Look into the ‘Loyal Wingman’ Drone Concept
November 21, 2019

A Look into the ‘Loyal Wingman’ Drone Concept

In 2019, a wave of countries have either started, or are interested in starting, ‘loyal wingman’ unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs.

The basic idea of a loyal wingman UAV is to field a drone that could support manned aircraft in air-to-air and air-to-surface missions, especially in high-risk operational environments, such as dense surface-to-air missile (SAM) zones or against enemy aircraft with long-range air-to-air capabilities.

The most developed of these programs is Kratos Defence & Security Solutions’ XQ-58 Valkyrie, which first flew in March 2019 and is now undergoing tests as part of the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator (LCASD) program.

Today, Australia, the UK, France and Germany, and China have each signaled an intent in form or another to develop their own analogous solutions to the LCASD. Others, such as South Africa, are now starting to entertain the idea as potential low-cost air warfare modernization effort.

This Quwa Premium article will explore how these countries are generally steering their respective loyal wingman UAV projects and, in turn, attempt to understand what Pakistan would require in order to gain its own loyal wingman UAV (especially in concert with its next-generation fighter program).

Intended Outcomes

The flight characteristics, performance, subsystems and other configuration factors will vary across loyal wingman models, but there are two overarching design elements in these UAVs…

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Support Manned Aircraft

In explaining the purpose of loyal wingman drones, the industry has largely been vague. In fact, the specific capability gains vary between the goals of each original equipment manufacturer (OEM)…

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Low-Cost Procurement

Developing cruise missiles – i.e., re-using the flight control systems, electronics, and to an extent even materials – may be a way how OEMs are trying to control costs, which are aggressive. USAF wants to procure each XQ-58A Valkyrie for as little as $2 million US.[1] Likewise, Boeing Australia’s Airpower Teaming System is set with $28.57 million US in developing funding for the initial variant.[2]…

In fact, it should be noted that USAF awarded the LCASD contract to Kratos, which had built its UAV name through the development target drones…

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Airframe Development

The first generation of loyal wingman drones may re-use (or further develop) the flight control systems, guidance electronics, and materials of cruise missiles and target drones…

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Artificial Intelligence

Imbuing these loyal wingman drones with autonomy might emerge as the main challenge (albeit for those countries that can readily field airframes, such as the US, Europe and China). The USAF aims to equip its loyal wingman drones with ‘Skyborg,’ an artificial intelligence (AI) platform…

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Can Pakistan Develop a Loyal Wingman Drone?

The starting point would be to examine if the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) envisages the need for such a drone.

This is a topic in its own right, but the short of it is that a loyal wingman drone may be required, albeit to serve as decoys for highly sophisticated air-to-air missiles (e.g., Meteor), and to help offset the challenge of fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) being too costly to field in large numbers in a short timeframe.

Thus, a need for both a loyal wingman drone and an attack-oriented UCAV could arise under Project Azm, if only to field disposable aerial attack assets in high-risk environments (especially in India’s now superior air defence environments) and nothing else…

End of Excerpt (532/1,672 words)

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[1] Kyle Mizokami. “China’s Loyal Wingman Drone Flies Alongside Manned Fighters.” Popular Mechanics. 31 August 2019. URL: https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/aviation/a28845055/china-loyal-wingman-drone/

[2] Ibid.

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