Boeing Australia's Twitter account posted a glitzy, but straight-up cryptic video teasing what it says will be a big announcement coming on February 27th, 2019 at this year's Avalon Air Show in Australia. The video shows a few sections of a CGI rendered aircraft and ends with the statements: "Force Projection. Force Protection. Force Multiplier." So what is this all about?
Well, it's impossible to say for sure, but clearly, Boeing has something unique to unveil, even if just in concept form, or they wouldn't hype it to such a high degree. Last time they did something similar, it was to unveil the MQ-25 Stingray tanker-drone prototype.
At first glance, the pieces of an aircraft they do show seem to be similar to those found on Boeing's T-X next-generation jet trainer aircraft that successfully took the prize of becoming the USAF's replacement of the venerable T-38C Talon. There is potentially a tender approaching from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) for just such a craft. Their current fleet of Hawk 127 trainers has gone through a mid-life update giving them extended life and relevancy, but eventually, these aircraft will need to be replaced or their lives extended through a deep upgrade.
With this in mind, a jet trainer with far higher performance and more advanced avionics than what the current Hawk 127 offers, one that is more representative of what RAAF pilots will face flying the Super Hornet, Growler, and Joint Strike Fighter, could soon be on Canberra's weapons wish list.
Defense journalist Mike Yeo spelled out Australia's modernization plans in a recent article as told by a recent Australian government whitepaper. The piece specifically highlights the looming requirement for a new or improved advanced jet trainer, stating in part:
The whitepaper also flagged the potential replacement of the RAFF’s lead-in fighter training system. The replacement program was expected to begin in 2022 and last until the end of the next decade. The service is currently operating the BAE Systems Hawk 127 as its lead-in fighter trainer, with the fleet nearing the end of an upgrade program to keep the type relevant for training pilots who will go on to fly advanced fighters.
The Hawks are expected to continue service in Australia until around 2026. But Steve Drury, BAE Systems Australia’s director of aerospace and integrated systems, told Defense News that the service life of the aircraft could be extended by another 10 years.
During an interview last year, the chief of the RAAF, Air Marshal Leo Davies, told Defense News that the service was considering several different options for a future fighter trainer, and that extending the Hawk’s service was also under consideration.
Clearly, there is an opportunity here for Boeing to step in with its T-X aircraft—a plane that was recently given the USAF's coveted seal of approval—and make a strong case for the RAAF moving to a higher performance advanced jet trainer than investing more money in its decades-old Hawks. Commonality with the USAF trainer fleet will also provide certain synergies and ensure a steady logistics and upgrade pipeline for decades to come.
In addition, Boeing could offer the T-X in a 'TF' configuration, where the plane is basically configured as a light fighter, as well as an advanced jet trainer. The T-X taking on other non-undergraduate pilot training roles has always been discussed as part of the T-X program and the quick migration of Boeing's design to a light fighter/trainer configuration is something we have posited since Boeing won the contract. Boeing is now openly discussing making a light fighter version of the T-X for export.
Not only does such a configuration provide an even more capable advanced trainer, but it can also take on lower-end tactical roles, such as close air support, and even air sovereignty missions, to some degree.
The only thing that doesn't add up here is that the imagery we see in the video doesn't line up perfectly with Boeing's T-X design. It is similar, but the tails have a slightly different rudder configuration and shape and the leading-edge root extension shown isn't found on the T-X as we know it today. These could just be a product of artistic license or even a more refined, production representative T-X design that has yet to be shown to the public by Boeing. This would be in no way unheard of. Often times proof of concept aircraft or technology demonstrators can look remarkably less refined in their production configuration, although we have had no indication that this would be so for Boeing's two T-X aircraft currently flying.
Another possibility is that this is an unrelated unmanned aircraft. In particular, one that can be used as either a 5th generation aerial target (5GAT) or as an unmanned combat air vehicle, one most likely designed for high performance and to serve in a 'loyal wingman' role.
In fact, the features shown look similar to the design of the 5GAT that the Pentagon is currently developing. That craft is envisioned to work as an affordable 5th generation fighter surrogate. One that is transonic speed capable and threat-representative, but also relatively simple to manufacture and low cost. 5GAT is envisioned as serving to train pilots and radar operators on land and at sea.
The craft will also be used for high-end live-fire destructive testing. Currently, the QF-16 Full-Scale Aerial Target (FSAT) can only provide a 4th generation threat representation. With foreign adversaries putting low-observable fighters into operation, this is no longer enough.
The recently released 2018 DOT&E report includes 5GAT and its progress towards an operational capability, stating:
"DOT&E has been investigating the means to develop a full-scale aerial target to represent the characteristics of fifth-generation threat aircraft in order to adequately assess the performance of current and future U.S. air defense weapon systems. The 5GAT study effort began in 2006 and examined the design and fabrication of a dedicated 5GAT. The 5GAT team – comprised of Air Force and Navy experts, retired Skunk Works engineers, and industry experts – completed the preliminary design in 2016. The fully owned Government design includes the aircraft outer mold line, internal structures, loads analysis, propulsion, and subsystems.
The DOD provided additional funding in FY18-19 to complete the final design, tooling, fabrication, and fight tests (FY19), and to build a second prototype. The 5GAT effort is currently building the first demonstration prototype, including flight propulsion, system integration, and flight simulation/verification activities. The team built one full-scale, flight-representative wing that will be used for structural load tests and a system integration laboratory, as well as a full-scale test article for radar cross-section testing. The prototyping effort will provide cost-informed alternative design and manufacturing approaches for future air vehicle acquisition programs, and verified cost data for all-composite aircraft design/development, alternative tooling approaches, and innovative management applications.
The 5GAT effort can also be used to assist with future weapon system design/development, planning and investment, and future analysis of alternative activities. It is also intended to demonstrate reduced signature, basic aerodynamic performance, alternative cost models for aircraft development, and provision for special mission systems."
Kratos Defense and Security Solutions and 5-D Systems have both acknowledged their involvement on the Pentagon-owned 5GAT program.
Clearly, Australia would have an interest in this capability to train its aircrews and air defense system operators, including those at sea, how to fend off stealthy high-performance aircraft, especially considering China has two stealth fighters currently flying, and the most advanced of which is operational. China also is very active in the stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle development space. At the same time, Australia has been working and spending to drastically boost its air combat capability. This has included the procurement of high-end electronic warfare aircraft, giving them a capability in this space only rivaled by the US.
In fact, a 5GAT like aircraft concept that can carry even a small payload begins to merge with an attritable (optionally disposable/low cost) unmanned combat air vehicle concept. This is another capability the U.S. is working on bringing to fruition via a number of initiatives, including Kratos Defense's X-58 drone, which you can read the latest on here.
An unmanned combat air vehicle that is capable of some semi-autonomous missions and can operate in the loyal wingman role, where it is 'tethered' to and takes directions from a nearby manned platform via data-link, makes a lot of sense for Australia as it would boost their air combat capabilities without needing to buy additional high-cost fighters or train new aircrews. It also would also make all their fighter force more survivable and capable of adapting to hostile threats on the fly. In addition, it would also increase their fighter cadre's magazine capacity, sensor diversity, range. The drones themselves can also be networked together in a swarm, giving them greater capability than the sum of their parts.
These concepts can be manifested in distinct aircraft, or potentially blended together in a single airframe, albeit with some compromises. But still, they should be less expensive than a very stealthy, high-end, flying-wing UCAV that is built for semi-autonomous or even autonomous operations deep in enemy territory.
A full-on fighter-like UCAV is also possible, but due to cost and the investment Australia has already made in their growing fleet of F-35s, this seems doubtful at this time. Also, high kinetic performance would mean sacrificing stealth and range, something that makes little sense really. And we know by the features Boeing has shown that this aircraft is designed for fighter-like speed and maneuverability, not extreme stealthiness and long range.
Yet the possibility that Australia wants some sort of advanced drone force of some kind shouldn't come as a surprise. The UK just announced they would be pursuing similar capabilities in the near term.
Still, we don't know of any information that states Boeing is actively working on any type of unmanned system that fits any of these descriptions at this time. It would be surprising if they weren't working on a high-performance loyal wingman drone, at least to a conceptual degree.
But once again, we have to state that these are just guesses based on the limited information we have at this time. Maybe it could end up being something else entirely.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.
UPDATE: 12:10pm PST—
We have a new post up that shows exactly what this new mystery aircraft is linked here.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com