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Analysis: How Pakistan Can Design a Loyal Wingman Drone

By Syed Aseem Ul-Islam

Author Profile: Syed Aseem Ul Islam is a Research Scholar at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA, specializing in adaptive and model-predictive flight control systems. He received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad, and his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in flight dynamics and control from the University of Michigan.

A previous article discussed how the goals and projects under Project Azm needed to be reoriented to make them achievable within the constraints of Pakistan’s aerospace ecosystem and the realities of TAI’s existing and substantial investment into its TFX program. That article had argued that Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) should be pursuing a loyal wingman unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) project instead of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) program. This article will propose a possible roadmap for such a program.

The proposed program envisions two UCAV’s (named ‘Vafadar-1’ and ‘Vafadar-2’ for the purpose of this article). Vafadar-1 would serve as the first step in PAC’s quest towards developing a loyal wingman program. It can serve as a testbed for technologies and be a relatively lower-risk and lower-cost UCAV program. Towards the end of the Vafadar-1 program, the Vafadar-2 program could be started, which will build upon the successes of its predecessor. Vafadar-2 would be bigger, more capable, and more expensive than Vafadar-1. Both loyal wingman UCAV’s will present the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), Turkish Air Force (TuAF), and potential export customers with two options that can work together seamlessly and provide the perfect mix of low and high-end loyal wingman capability.

Designing, constructing, and flying these UCAVs that are approaching manned fighter jets in complexity will give PAC valuable experience and build the human resource and infrastructure that it is currently lacking. Embarking on this program will build the foundations on which PAC will become capable of designing and building large parts of a manned fighter jet, as is the vision under Project Azm.

Involving Private Industry

Since the design and development of these UCAVs will be a paradigm shift for Pakistan’s aerospace industry, this will make it the perfect time to start involving the private sector in the program. 

PAC should put out a requirement for the Vafadar-1 loyal-wingman UCAV and invite proposals from Pakistani aerospace companies, such as Integrated Dynamics, Woot Tech, and Satuma. 

Obviously, these companies currently do not have the capacity to undertake a program of such complexity. Thus, the intention of involving these companies in the program is to gradually build their capacity. Their proposals should include their own capacity enhancement plans and how they intend to collaborate with PAC and other private companies in order to account for their individual deficiencies. For example, Solunux may be invited for expertise on turbines, Sherani engineering may be invited for expertise jigs and assemblies, and East-West-Infiniti may be invited for expertise in electronics. In Western fashion, two consortiums of private companies might be selected as finalists and two competing designs for Vafadar-1 might be taken to the prototype stage.

The rest of the article proposes the kinds of capabilities that such a UCAV will need in the author’s opinion. Additionally, “back-of-the-envelope” designs for both Vafadar-1 and Vafadar-2 are also given to be used as inspiration if (or when) such a program is pursued.

Common Capabilities and Requirements

Since Vafadar-1 and -2 are to be developed under the same program with similar requirements, they will undoubtedly have a set of common requirements that will be established before the distinctions between the two UCAVs are discussed.

  1. Network Centric Design
    These UCAVs will have the capability to communicate with other fighter jets, PAF’s early warning aircraft, and satellites. There will be an ability to connect to Link 16 and Pakistan’s in-house data-link protocol: Link 17. Other fighter aircraft, such as the JF-17 and proposed TFX-Azm, will have the ability to issue high-level commands to the UCAV. These UCAVs will also have the ability to function as network nodes to extend the reach of any possible network that these UCAVs are a part of.

  2. Autonomous Modes
    The UCAV should be able to perform basic mission tasks autonomously. This includes takeoff, cruise, loiter, formation flying, and landing.

    For strike missions on fixed targets, a “command-and-forget” mode may be programmed where the UCAV takes off, cruises to the target, deploys its weapons, and returns to base to land.

    The existence of autonomous modes will allow pilots of the commanding jets to issue high-level commands. For example, the commanding jet may issue a command to engage an enemy jet, and the UCAV will accomplish this mission on its own. The UCAV will have the ability to detect incoming missiles and perform basic evasive maneuvers.

    Future software upgrades can allow the UCAV to loiter and track targets of opportunity, conveying this information to its network. The ability of the UCAV to respond to high-level tasks will be vital in allowing it to operate as a loyal wingman drone that doesn’t increase the commanding jet’s pilot’s workload.

  3. Low Cost and Attritable
    The UCAVs could be powered by overhauled jet engines that are just beyond their maximum hours in order to keep costs down. Furthermore, the number of systems will be minimized. For example, the UCAV will not carry a radar of its own but rely on the commanding jet for providing targeting information. The UCAVs will be designed with mechanical assemblies from platforms in the PAF to minimize development and operational costs.

  4. Rocket-Assisted Takeoff
    The UCAVs can be designed with rocket-assisted takeoff, which would allow them to be launched independently of airstrips. This will allow the UCAVs to be operable even when airfields are inoperable or busy. Furthermore, this will make the job of predicting where these UCAVs will come from very difficult for the enemy.

  5. Small size and internal weapons bays
    To keep the radar-cross section small, the UCAVs will be small in size and designed with internal weapon bays. These weapons bays will also allow the mounting of specially designed electronic warfare and targeting modules.

Vafadar 1

Vafadar-1 can be PAC’s first loyal wingman UCAV and a small aircraft. The author proposes that it is powered by an engine in the class of the Honeywell TFE731, which is the K-8’s powerplant. This would be a 4500-6500 lb aircraft, which will share the landing gears from the K-8 aircraft as well. A proposed design is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Proposed design of the PAC Vafadar-1 Loyal Wingman UCAV.

It is proposed that Vafadar-1 carry 2000-2500 lb fuel, thus giving it an endurance of two to three hours. This would be a high-subsonic design with a maximum speed of 430 kts. The approximate combat radius of Vafadar-1 would be 700 km.

Vafadar-1 can be designed to carry a variety of payloads, as shown in Figure 2. Note that the weapons bay and the weapons in Figures 1 and 2 are drawn to scale.

Figure 2

Some of the proposed scenarios for Vafadar-1 (V1) are:

  1. Missile Truck/BVR Wingman
    A flight of two JF-17’s is joined by a flight of three V1 UCAVs, each carrying two PL-15’s each. The JF-17 detects the four targets at beyond visual range and orders the flight of three V2s to engage them. The JF-17’s fall back while the V1s speed toward the bogeys, all the while receiving targeting data from the JF-17s. The V1s deploy their combined payload of 6 PL-15s at 30 miles to the bogeys, maximizing the probability of intercept, albeit by paying the price of being too close to the bogeys themselves. After launching their PL-15s, the V1s immediately break and perform evasive maneuvers to best avoid the missiles that have been undoubtedly launched towards them. Some V1s may be lost, but the enemy flight is in disarray as the JF-17s come in to clean up the stragglers. In this scenario the V1s act both as decoys for the enemy’s air-to-air missiles and as missile trucks for the JF-17s.
  2. Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses
    A flight of two V1s armed with three MALD-type decoys are launched from undisclosed locations through rocket-assisted launch. This flight is followed by another launch of a V1 armed with two MK-84 REK-IV rocket-assisted range extension kits and another V11 with an electronic warfare (EW) module capable of location sources of radar emissions. This formation of four V1s fly towards an enemy air defense site and deploy the MALD-type decoys, which successfully elicit a response from the air-defense radars. The location of this radar is detected by the V11 with the EW module and conveyed to the V1 with the two REK-IV’s. The REK-IVs are launched towards the air defense battery and the flight of four V1s return to base.
  3. Strike Missions
    A flight of four V1s are rocket-launched from an undisclosed location towards an enemy command structure deep within enemy airspace. Three V1s are carrying two REK-IV’s each and one V1 is carrying an electro-optical (EO) targeting module. Upon reaching the firing range, the target is confirmed by the EO-equipped V1, and a live video feed is transmitted to PAF high command, as the three V1s release their payload of six REK-IVs at the target and return to base. The EO-equipped V1 returns to base after confirming the destruction of the target.


Once Vafadar-1 is in advanced stages of design, the design of a Vafadar-2 (V2) loyal wingman UCAV can begin. This article proposes that building upon the design of V1, the V2 is a bigger and more capable UCAV. A size comparison between the proposed V1 and V2 designs is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3

It would be powered by overhauled and sans-afterburner RD-93 engines from JF-17 aircraft and utilize many mechanical assemblies from it. The author proposes that the V2 has a maximum takeoff weight of 12,000 to 16,000 lbs and carries 4500 lbs of fuel. Like the V1, the V2 would have an internal weapons bay. However, the V2’s bay will be much larger, and thus able to accommodate bigger and heavier payloads such as the MK-83 based rocket-assisted stand-off weapon REK-III. Furthermore, it will be able to carry a much bigger missile payload, including specialized munitions, such as the MAR-1 anti-radiation missile. These options are shown in Figure 6. Of particular interest is the ability to carry up to six PL-15 air-to-air missiles, thus truly fulfilling the role of a “missile truck.”

Figure 4

Since V2 is a “full-size” UCAV, it will be much more expensive to build and operate than the V1. It will be for PAF to decide whether or not the V2 program is to be pursued or to be scaled down in scope. The designs proposed in this article are an inference upon which informed decisions can be made.

Furthermore, the right mix of V1s and V2s would have to be decided based on doctrinal needs of the PAF. Even though V2 will be a more expensive proposition, it will have greatly enhanced internal space for weapons and range.

Figure 5


This article has presented “back-of-the-envelope” designs for two possible loyal wingman UCAVs that can be developed at PAC in collaboration with private aerospace companies. These UCAVs are proposed as complements to the possibly combined TAI-PAC TFX-Azm FGFA.

The benefits of embarking on this loyal wingman program are many. 

Firstly, this program will utilize existing infrastructure, human resources, and expertise, to realistically extend local capabilities. Furthermore, these UCAVs will have a potential to be produced in very large numbers to serve with the PAF, the TuAF, and for other export customers as well. Additionally, collaboration with private aerospace companies will build their capabilities and, most importantly, long-term aerospace jobs to Pakistan, and pave the way for a much richer future for Pakistani aerospace research. Finally, the realignment of goals from developing a redundant FGFA to a complementary program to the TFX will ensure that the limited resources available for aerospace R&D in Pakistan are spent most efficiently.

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