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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. These elements are that they must effectively support manned aircraft, and second, they must be low in procurement cost.

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).

So, for example, China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University is positioning its LJ-1 design as a UAV that could serve as a decoy for enemy air-to-air missiles (AAM) and, if deployed as such, serve as a long-range cruise missile (i.e., suicide drone).[1] But it will also function as an electronic warfare (EW) jammer.[2]

On the other hand, Boeing Australia is aiming to develop a UAV with “fighter-like” performance as well as subsystems to enable for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and EW as part of its Airpower Teaming System.[3] However, “fighter-like” would imply supersonic speed, which is a key difference from Kratos’ XQ-58A Valkyrie, which cruises at subsonic speed.[4]

Likewise, some analysts have posited that loyal wingman drones could also have their own radars, which would enable them to search for targets while enabling the manned aircraft to keep its radars off and, in turn, reduce their detectability.[5] However, over-equipping them with such electronics will raise the cost.

Since it is the closest to availability, Kratos’ XQ-58A could emerge as a template for other OEMs, especially for the initial set of loyal wingman drones to enter the market. Kratos developed the XQ-58A in response to USAF’s LCASD requirement, which, in turn, required a drone that could carry air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, EW and electronic attack (EA) equipment, and be disposable.

Disposability is a key design requirement. From USAF’s vantage point, these loyal wingman UAVs will not have high survivability rates. In real-world operations, they will be used to maximum effect to protect the manned aircraft, and to execute high-risk attack operations with minimal risk to aircrews.

Interestingly, this requirement is functionally similar to the value of a stand-off range weapon (SOW), and in particular, long-range cruise missiles. In a sense, the first-generation loyal wingman could be an evolved cruise missile, but with a more varied set of roles, which can include jamming and missile diversion.

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.[6] Likewise, Boeing Australia’s Airpower Teaming System is set with $28.57 million US in developing funding for the initial variant.[7]

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. Thus, the lineage of loyal wingman drones (and this might only apply to the first several generations of these UAVs) is not necessarily the same as that of larger and more sophisticated unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), such as the Northrop Grumman X-47B.

Overall, it appears that loyal wingman drones are evolutions of inherently disposable unmanned aircraft, specifically cruise missiles and target drones. This might explain the relatively low R&D budgets allocated for these programs and, in turn, the widespread interest in developing these drones.

As an example, South Africa’s leading R&D bureau — Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – is confident that the country could develop a loyal wingman drone indigenously.[8] Loyal wingman drones appear to be a relatively accessible route, even for countries with more limited R&D resources.

Granted, Kratos and, in all likelihood, other loyal wingman drone makers are using existing commercially off-the-shelf (COTS) technology, such as engines and electronics. Thus, Kratos and its counterparts in the West and China need not worry about net-new R&D besides integration and testing as many of the core inputs are readily available to them and already paid for from an R&D standpoint.

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.

However, they are going to be larger than cruise missiles and, in turn, require larger engines (e.g., business jet-class turbofan engines as apparent with the XQ-58A Valkyrie). It is not known if there will be smaller wingman drones comparable in size to cruise missiles, but the Chinese LJ-1 might hint at such a design.

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.

Ultimately, the goal of Skyborg is to enable loyal wingman drones (and unmanned vehicles in general) to operate with more autonomy.[9] In terms of supporting manned fighters, one can assume rely less on the manned aircraft to understand the situation and execute decisions.

For a start, the USAF is requiring Skyborg to first become available as a scalable AI software platform (with ample capacity to take on “complex autonomous behaviors” as they are integrated). Second, the USAF is hoping that Skyborg comes equipped with baseline autonomy, e.g., takeoff and landing and avoid terrain, obstacles, aircraft, etc.[10] Nonetheless, Skyborg indicates that to field autonomous UAVs, one will need to heavily invest in AI and other software development work through the long-term.

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.

There are also indications of the PAF taking drone development relatively seriously.

First, it has insisted on developing its own medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV in-house, even though it can acquire off-the-shelf designs from China or Turkey.

When Quwa asked Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) about the Aviation Design Institute (AvDI) UAV at the 2018 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), PAC officials heavily stressed that this was an original and indigenous design. With the Burraq UAV handling the Army’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism (COIN/CT) needs, the goal of the AvDI program seems to be to learn UAV technology at a more complex level, in addition to meeting operational needs.

The implication is that PAC intends to use its MALE UAV project as the starting point for other projects.

Second, as discussed above, an early generation loyal wingman is – or at least it can be – a descendant of cruise missile and target drone technology. Pakistan has developed both (albeit with varying degrees of localization), and if anything, it can return to collaborating with countries that helped it the first time, e.g., South Africa, China, and/or potentially Ukraine. In any case, it could potentially re-use some technologies, such as the flight control system, terrain hugging/sea-skimming, and others.

Third, if PAC’s Aviation Research, Indigenization & Development (AvRID) directorate is designing an FGFA on a turnkey basis, then it will have set-up an aircraft design capacity. This would include baseline systems such as computer-aided design (CAD) tools and expertise, a wind-tunnel facility, and a plethora of other essential elements for preliminary aircraft design work. It can use infrastructure for another project.

Fourth, the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) is undertaking research for Pakistan’s National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) in the “autonomous landing of fixed wing UAV on runways using computer vision and machine learning techniques,” composites, and other potentially applicable areas in terms of electronics, sensors, and others.[11]

Overall, the basic groundwork to develop a loyal wingman drone is in place, and if Pakistan partners with more experienced and/or better-equipped countries, it can produce an original loyal wingman drone. It can use COTS technology as well (albeit from non-Western and ITAR-free sources) to cut its development time and costs. At a crude level, it could look at re-encasing the Ra’ad air-launched cruise missile in a more complex airframe, though it would be smaller and less capable than other loyal wingman designs.

Moving forward, it will now depend on whether the PAF perceives there to be a need for a loyal wingman drone, and if it will allocate the resources to develop one.

[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.

[3] Nigel Pittaway. “Boeing unveils ‘loyal wingman’ drone.” Defense News. 27 February 2019. URL: https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/avalon/2019/02/27/boeing-unveils-loyal-wingman-drone/

[4] Valerie Insinna. “US Air Force looks to fast track cash to Kratos Defense for more Valkyrie drones.” Defense News. 17 June 2019. URL: https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/paris-air-show/2019/06/17/us-air-force-looking-to-fast-track-cash-to-kratos-defense-for-additional-valkyrie-drones/

[5] Kyle Mizokami. “F-35 Fighter Pilots Might Soon Fly With Robotic Wingmen.” Popular Mechanics. 23 May 2019. URL: https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/aviation/a27560364/f-35-robotic-wingmen/

[6] Valerie Insinna. Defense News. 17 June 2019

[7] Nigel Pittaway. Defense News. 27 February 2019

[8] Jonathan Katzenellenbogen. “CSIR proposes study into robotic wingman for SAAF.” Defence Web. 17 October 2019. URL: https://www.defenceweb.co.za/aerospace/unmanned-aerial-vehicles/csir-proposes-study-into-robotic-wingman-for-saaf/

[9] Joseph Treviithick. “USAF Plans For Its “Skyborg” AI Computer Brain To Be Flying Drones In The Next Two Years.” The Drive. 20 March 2019. URL: https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/27067/usaf-plans-for-its-skyborg-ai-computer-brain-to-be-flying-drones-in-the-next-two-years

[10] Ibid.

[11] National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST). URL: http://www.nust.edu.pk/Research/Research%20Linkages/Pages/National.aspx

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