Defence Industry

Unmanned Wingman Plan India
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Issue Vol. 37.2, Apr-Jun 2022 | Date : 30 Jun , 2022

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has announced that flight testing of India’s ‘Loyal Wingman’ warrior drone would begin by 2024. The loyal wingman drones will accompany manned Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets such as Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and the Rafale. They may be launched from a mother aircraft such as the C-130, Jaguar or Su-30 MKI class fighters. They would, thereafter, be controlled by the fighter aircraft through a secure data-link. HAL had first displayed a loyal wingman mock-up at their pavilion in Aero India 2021. The indigenous Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) will also have private sector players.

Manned Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) Concept

The maturing of Unmanned Aerial Systems, the autonomous operations using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and more reliable secure data-links, have made it possible to have a combined mission of manned and unmanned aerial platforms. The Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat, previously known as the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS) and the Loyal Wingman project, is a stealth, multi-role, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that is under development by Boeing Australia for the Royal Australian Air Force. It is designed as a force multiplier aircraft mission. It is designed to work as a smart team with existing military aircraft to complement and extend airborne missions. Without exposing the more expensive manned aircraft to high threat environment, the unmanned wingmen could perform Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) or tactical early warning missions and Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD). The low-cost design allows operators to confidently put it on the frontline.

In October 2020, an Apache AH-64E, a Textron Shadow RQ-7BV2 Block 3 tactical UAV and a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range UAV successfully worked together to carry out an air-to-ground missile attack. The French-German collaboration venture for the Sixth Generation Fighter Aircraft would also include MUMT technology. Many Wingmen platforms could be as large as a small fighter aircraft, have fighter aircraft-like performance and be able to fly long ranges and have large endurance. Integrated sensor packages onboard could support many missions. They could even carry weapons or fly in variety of formations and could perform coordinate manoeuvres.

USAF Loyal Wingman Commitment

The United States Air Force (USAF) is fully committed to fielding the loyal wingman concept and is moving beyond experimentation with unmanned combat aircraft and towards acquiring and fielding the next-generation UAVs. Fielding loyal wingman UAVs is a top priority for the service, Secretary of the USAF Frank Kendall said during Defence One’s Outlook 2022 virtual conference on December 09, 2021. Loyal wingman types such as the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator could be paired with manned aircraft. The USAF Research Laboratory (AFRL) helped fund the development of the Kratos Defence XQ-58A Valkyrie loyal wingman UAV which is an experimental stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) for the USAF as Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator (LCASD) programme. This is a project to develop cheaper unmanned alternatives to manned aircraft. The Valkyrie successfully completed its first flight on March 05, 2019. The unmanned XQ-58A Valkyrie will release smaller drones. The XQ-58A would escort the F-22 or F-35 during combat missions and to be able to deploy weapons or surveillance systems.

The research laboratory has also funded development of Skyborg – a software and hardware package designed to allow a variety of low-cost, loyal wingman UAVs to fly and carry out missions autonomously. The Skyborg project is a USAF Vanguard programme developing Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) intended to accompany a manned fighter aircraft. Contracts have been awarded to Boeing, General Atomics, Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems and Northrop Grumman. A multi-hour test flight came after a Skyborg-equipped UAV) conducted its maiden flight in April 2021. Two General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger UAVs demonstrated in-flight communication between each other and “responded to navigational commands, stayed within specified geo-fences and maintained flight envelopes,” while monitored from the ground command and control station.

Northrop Grumman Corporation has designed a new autonomous jet fighter aircraft intended to accompany manned combat jets into battle. The Model 437 stealthy jet with a 3,000 mile range is a collaboration between Northrop Grumman and aircraft designer Scaled Composites in Mojave, California. They are part of the USAF Skyborg and the United Kingdom’s Project Mosquito. Project Mosquito will involve flying a combat aircraft alongside the F-35 jet fighter, the multirole Typhoon fighter and its future replacement, the Tempest. Future tests will explore manned aircraft teaming up with multiple autonomy core system-equipped unmanned aircraft. “Skyborg will provide the foundation on which the USAF can build an airborne, autonomous ‘best of breed’ system of systems” that will adapt and orient to the battle-space and make decisions “at machine speed for a wide variety of complex mission sets,” the USAF has stated. An Off Board Sensing Station (OBSS) drones is part of the push. The drones will fly alongside manned aircraft to help extend the aircraft’s sensing range and provide an additional weapons bay. The USAF wants to “operationalise unmanned combat aircraft in the fighter category”. The UAVs would be paired with USAF’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, the top-secret combat aircraft it plans to use to replace the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor in the 2030s. The NGAD could play quarterback to several loyal wingman UAVs.

Loyal Wingman – Operational Usage

“Wingman” drones could redefine air warfare. Typically, around five unmanned combat aircraft would be controlled by a single modern manned fighter aircraft. The US is looking at F-22 and F-35 in the long run. Boeing is demonstrating on F-18. The IAF could have the LCA as a demonstrator and later, the SU-30 MKI. The forward flying wingmen would broaden the ‘mother’ aircraft’s situational awareness using infrared, electromagnetic, radar or visual sensors. They would also map out target area, identify the location of radars and air defence systems and clear the corridor for the manned aircraft. The manned aircraft would assess the operational environment and situational awareness and assign tasks to the unmanned aircraft. The physical tactical position of other aircraft in formation would depend on the type of mission.

They could also serve as communications nodes for friendly forces or conduct electronic warfare operations by jamming enemy radars, communications or other signals. If they are large enough to carry their own armaments, they could carry out their own air-to-air or air-to-ground strikes alongside the manned aircraft, giving the enemy multiple threats to counter. But even without onboard weapons, a drone swarm could serve as a decoy to befuddle the enemy, sending out false signals that make it difficult for the adversary to differentiate between the manned and unmanned aircraft.

A SEAD and strike combination could mean that the unmanned members could fly nearly five to seven minutes ahead of the strike aircraft. Initial drones will be armed with precision-guided weapons such as air-to-surface missiles or a laser-guided bomb. Future versions of the platform will also be able to fire air-to-air missiles to target enemy fighters. Unmanned wingmen could target enemy airfields, army installations, radar sites and enemy surface-to-air missile launchers. A whole bunch of opportunities are possible. Electronic and electro-optical warfare equipment could also be selectively put on these drones. The exact mix of manned and unmanned aircraft and the types of sensors and weapons the UAVs would carry would have to be mission specific. A lot of actions would be pre-programmed into the unmanned aircraft. The two have to operate in conjunction and not necessarily accompany in near vicinity. Initially, it may be better that the mother aircraft is a two-seater one.

Loyal Wingman – Operational Need

Operational applications of UAVs for combat support operations and precision targeting are well established. UAVs have been tested in aerial refuelling and cargo roles. Despite AI, total UAV autonomy is still far and has legal issues. MUMT will combine the strengths and limitations of both the manned and unmanned platforms. Clearly, it combines reduced human risk, better and faster human decision making. Also, risk of loss of long range satellite link with UAV controlled from the ground gets reduced in MUMT. MUMT could use the unmanned wingman as a decoy, an early warning sensor, an airborne communication relay station, or even a Directed Energy Weapons platform. The degree of intimacy in the MUMT can be worked out based on mission requirements. The concept is highly technology and communication-link dependent.

Launch/Recovery and Combat Zone Entry

The drones could be launched from the ‘mother’ aircraft which would also control them. The launch could be independently from the bay of large cargo aircraft, similar to the palletised munitions concept. They could also be carried in the bomb bay of a B-21 bomber or on pylons of a fighter aircraft, but a combat aircraft would rather preserve its limited space for munitions. The flight leads and mission commanders will need fully integrated interfaces to be able to supervise, direct, control and command their autonomous teaming aircraft. It could even be from the surface or a marine platform. Drones will enter combat zone with the aircraft that they are paired with. Recovery could be aboard the aircraft they are paired with or on water with parachute.

Advantages of MUMT

Most modern manned fighter aircraft are fairly expensive each costing close to $100 million. Each unmanned wingman is projected to cost under $5 million. The finite payload and range capability of the manned fighter can be augmented by using unmanned aircraft. Not only do they increase the spread of offensive firepower in each and every mission, they also reduce human casualties because they are unmanned aircraft. This will also allow better low-risk penetration into highly contested areas. Unmanned drones could be deployed much deeper into enemy territory. Drones will be the first line of offense in operations against heavily defended, integrated air defence networks. They could also have the capability to fly much riskier flight profiles or carry out harsh manoeuvres that were restricted in manned aircraft due physiological limits of the aircrew. A weapon loaded drone could also carry out a kamikaze attack on a very high value target. But it has to be ensured that the pilot is not overloaded while trying to conduct that orchestra.

Drones will be reusable but inexpensive enough for the Air Force to afford to lose them in combat. This would allow the Air Force to attempt riskier missions it would not otherwise consider for fear of sending a pilot on, essentially, a suicide mission. Swarming alongside each manned aircraft could be a handful of small drone wingmen, operating with minimal direction from the accompanying pilot. They scout ahead to map out targets, use electronic warfare capabilities to jam enemy signals and launch their own missiles to carry out airstrikes and destroy targets and multiplying the effect a single pilot can have in battle.

Possible Disruptions and Responses

The potential exists for the adversary to disrupt the formation communications and therefore, will need levels of autonomy that allows the drones to carry out their assigned missions. There will have to be some limits to their autonomous operations in such contingency for going forward without veto, in terms of timing, geographic reach and missions would have to be programmed. Some kind of All-Domain Command and Control architecture would have to be worked out to synchronise with other missions. Also, contingencies of autonomous system misbehaviour would need a protocol or a “get home” command and system. Autonomous evasive actions if a threat emerges would need programming. However, ability to switch targets would not be allowed. Some human supervision would be mandatory. The ethical questions of conducting warfare and potentially killing humans with autonomous devices must still be factored.

China’s Low-Observable Flying Wing UAV

China is often called the Walmart for small drones. AVIC 601-S is an UAV development programme containing series of Chinese low-observable flying wing UAVs. They began with 2.15m long “Sky Crossbow” to gain experience on flying wing design. Sky Crossbow’s twin-tail was replaced by winglets in the “Wind Blade”. Once the control laws were mastered in the next design “Cloud Bow”, the winglets were dispensed with. Finally, the “Sharp Sword” and “Dark Sword” were progressed for service induction for reconnaissance and eventually combat missions. Dark Sword has high emphasis is on manoeuvrability which is achieved by adopting canard controls, twin tails and diverter-less supersonic inlet. Dark Sword allows for ‘loyal wingman’ or MUMT with aircraft such as Chengdu J-20.

MUMT Plans and Options for India

The initial experimentation is being led by HAL with the proposed LCA-based CATS in collaboration with a Bengaluru-based start-up, Newspace Research & Technologies. It will involve a recoverable wingman till the combat radius of 350km. The range would increase to 800km for a kamikaze attack on target. The proposal is to have CATS Warrior (CW), CATS Hunter (CH), CATS-Air Launched Flexible Asset (ALFA) and CATS Infinity (CI).

CW autonomous wingman drone would be capable of take-off and landing from land and aircraft carrier. It will team up with the existing fighter platforms of the IAF such as Tejas, Su-30 MKI and Jaguar which will act like its mother ship. It has a composite structure with an internal weapons bay and hybrid design whose front section looks like the Boeing Airpower Teaming System wingman and from its mid fuselage to its tail like the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie. It has a single serpentine air intake on the top of its fuselage that leads to its two engines. It will be powered by modified HAL PTAE-7 or HAL HTFE-25 turbofan engine. The CW will mostly serve as a ‘sensor amplifier’ for the LCA, flying out ahead of the manned aircraft and using its sensors to feed information back to the LCA. The CW would be equipped with suitable ISR/EW payloads and will internally mount air-to-air missiles or air-to-ground weapons. The CW itself could launch up to 24 ALFA-S swarm drones. It can carry two new-generation short-range or beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles externally and two DRDO-developed, Smart Anti-Airfield Weapons (SAAW) in its internal weapons bay. It will be equipped with an electro-optic/infrared payload, Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, inertial navigational unit and a jammer for ISR and combat operations.

HUNTER is essentially is a wingman that flies like an Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) that carry munitions to 300km range. It will use satellite navigation and Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM) for guidance and manage autonomous target acquisition. After delivering payload, CH will be able to return and use its parachute for landing. It could also conduct kamikaze missions as it carries around 250kg of warheads.

ALFA is a system which carries four swarm drones inside its container. It can be launched from a combat aircraft. The container has a range of about 100km after launch from the aircraft. ALFA-S has five to eight kilogramme warheads and can fly under its own propulsion and perform autonomous ground-target acquisition and attack. Both the SU-30 MKI and the Jaguar aircraft will be capable of carrying the ALFA-S. The first flight is expected by next year with induction by the end of the decade.

CATS Infinity (CI) drone is to operate at a predetermined position at extremely high altitudes (65,000ft). It would use of self-generating power (solar panels) so as to remain aloft for extended periods of time of up to three months. It will provide enhanced real-time ISR inputs for deep-strike aerial missions. The first prototype is likely to be completed by 2025.

In the long run, the unmanned wingman could be on upgraded Jaguar dedicated-strike fighters also known as the Jaguar Max and SU-30 MKI, both of which are with IAF in large numbers. Initial drones are planned to be powered by the PTAE-7 turbojet engine which powers the indigenous DRDO Lakshya high speed target drone. Later, a more powerful engine would be required to match the mission flight performance requirements. The IAF’s capability concerns in view of shortfall in authorised fighter squadrons can also be partly made up through wingman drones, albeit the 42 squadrons will still be required in view of growing air threat from China. The mother-aircraft modification, the wingman drones and the two-way data-link would have to be developed indigenously. The drone sensors, such as radar and electro-optical systems of appropriate size and weight, would have to be designed or acquired. The mother aircraft cockpits would require reconfiguration of existing cockpit multifunction display and control buttons for passing command instructions to the drones. Several Indian defence start-ups are also working on MUMT and some are in consultation with HAL. Some important technological breakthroughs would need to be achieved. In view of the leaps China is making in drone swarms and MUMT, India needs to show urgency and national commitment.

The Way Ahead

For over 20 years, the USAF has flown drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper in the largely permissive environments of the Middle East and Afghanistan, conducting airstrikes and flying ISR missions. The world is entering a new era determining how wars are fought and won, where autonomous technologies extend and connect human capabilities across all domains at a small incremental cost. The future wars will be in a greatly contested environment and thus the need for MUMT. The technologies are fast getting in place where a formation of a manned aircraft controlling multiple unmanned aircraft. The autonomous collaborative platforms are going to be a major part of the future of warfare. All major air forces are working on MUMT.

Aerial combat is also headed toward this teaming approach. More recently, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) made progress on its X-61A Gremlins programme which seeks to deploy and then recover swarms of small, sensor-laden drones from cargo planes in flight. In October 2021, DARPA flew and successfully recovered in mid-air, a small Gremlin drone for the first time using a C-130 to capture the X-61. China is already a world leader in small UAS, and has many large UAS under development. Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar Defence has made rapid strides in drone technology and is emerging as a significant player including in Ukraine. Pakistan is also investing heavily in these relatively cheap force multipliers. The Indian drone market is growing rapidly. The future is mostly unmanned or optionally manned, including heavy cargo. India has the potential to become a global hub and must get its act right through collaboration between the public and private sector.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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