In what is a massive milestone for Boeing and potentially for unmanned aerial combat systems as a whole, the company officially rolled out the first of three pre-production unmanned teaming aircraft, which is the central component of a total system called the Airpower Teaming System, or ATS for short. The War Zone was part of a small roundtable of journalists that talked with two of the minds behind ATS ahead of the official unveiling and we learned a lot about this potentially game-changing system, to say the least.
ATS is designed to work with manned aerial assets in the 'loyal wingman' role and to do so at a remarkably low cost. In effect, the concept has to potential to drastically expand the size of a tactical jet force at a fraction of the cost of buying full-up manned airframes, while also infusing a whole new set of disruptive tactics into an air arm's playbook. It will also make manned assets more survivable by not having to risk them during the direst parts of some missions. You can read more about this concept overall, here.
Boeing sees the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and a certain level of autonomy to be key in really creating a revolutionary capability that can work as a huge force multiplier for existing manned combat aircraft. These drones don't fly with a pilot remotely at the controls in a traditional sense, like say an MQ-9 Reaper drone. They will be directed in more of a point-and-click desktop or screen-top style interface. With the help of AI, they can automate much of this process, leaving their human overlords to concentrate on the big tactical picture instead of on constant small navigation and tactical tasks. Even being in the right place at the right time before a major tactical decision is made by the operator, which would be flying in a nearby aircraft, could be a huge help in an air combat situation.
The initiative, which is a cooperative effort between Boeing Australia and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), has moved at a remarkably fast pace. The program was announced just 14 months ago and the Boeing Australia team has been flying sub-scale demonstrators to test the software and concepts of operation behind the system for months now.
The program is also somewhat unique in that it's an ambitious venture between the Australian Ministry of Defense and Boeing Australia, with the aircraft being designed and built in Australia, as well. In other words, this is not a U.S. program, but the results of it could impact the future of airpower both in the United States and in many allied countries around the globe.
Getting Off The Ground
We were briefed on the program by Jerad Hayes, Senior Director of Autonomous Aviation and Technology, and Dr. Shane Arnott, Program Director of Airpower Teaming System, and were given plenty of time to ask questions, which both gentlemen were more than enthusiastic about answering. What we learned is fascinating.
The team is super pumped—that's a quote—to be part of what they see as a historic and unprecedented drive to create a new paradigm for autonomous unmanned combat aircraft. It's the first time Boeing has brought a clean-sheet design alive outside the United States and the first time the RAAF has done so in over half a century.
The three aircraft that Boeing Australia is building are not prototypes as we commonly understand such a thing in the aviation world. Instead of being hand-built one-offs that will be similar to their production cousins, the trio was built using automated production techniques on a line that is itself a proof of concept for what a full-rate production line would look and operate like.
In general, these three aircraft will provide a demonstration of operational capabilities and work as a proof of concept for the entire system, which is much more than just an airframe. It includes user command interfaces, modular sensor packages, maintenance regimes, data-links, and of course, software.
Flight testing of the Boeing ATS is slated to move well beyond basic testing with the trio of airframes being built for the endeavor. Once again, we are talking about aircraft that are intended to perform beyond what a traditional prototype would, including acting as a demonstrator for missionized systems and various experimental tactics so that their impact on the realm of air combat can be proven. If successful, these concepts would find their way into the production system and the operational doctrine that goes with it. In other words, these aircraft will be about showing off what they can bring to the fight as much as testing their basic airworthiness and kinematic performance.
Much of the development for ATS has already occurred in the virtual space, whether that be in a simulator, including those that pilots can interact with and give feedback on how the aircraft performs at their command, or via the use of a virtual model of the aircraft itself, the most advanced the company has ever devised.
This "digital twin" concept, which you can read about in-depth here, is basically a highly detailed virtual model of the aircraft and its related systems, allowing for a whole slew of testing, development, and training to occur without a physical manifestation of the craft being present. This saves lots of time and money and Boeing has such high confidence in the ATS digital twin that they say it allows their team to speed up the fielding of the system while it is still in development, a process often referred to as concurrency.
The digital twin goes beyond just virtual simulation. The software and interfaces the craft will leverage have allowed subscale physical flying surrogates to stand in for the full-sized drones to allow for testing and risk reduction work to be done even as the planes themselves have been under construction.
As it sits now, the first flight of the real McCoy is slated for before the next Avalon Air Show, which is scheduled for February of 2021, with testing ramping up rapidly after that as the other two airframes join the test and demonstration force. If everything goes as plan, it would mean that Boeing flew a relatively ambitious new aircraft design in less than two years from the program's initial announcement. This would be a stunning achievement.
The ATS airframe has one heck of a snout. One of the biggest features on the aircraft is that the nose section can be rapidly swapped between missions, giving the drone a whole new set of capabilities depending on the mission set while the core airframe stays exactly the same.
The eight-and-a-half foot long snap-on, snap-off nose has around 9,000 cubic inches of space to carry whatever can be stuffed inside of it. The ability to swap out payloads to re-role a drone like this is one of the key tenets I described years ago in my mega feature on unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs), and it is more about just changing the role of a single unmanned aircraft with relative ease.
If you can swap out the primary sensor and technology payload on an aircraft like this, you can tailor a swarm of them for whatever mission is at hand. For instance, if the mission is about taking on enemy fighters, one drone can pack an infrared search and track system, while two others pack radars, while another packs a communications gateway, while another packs an electronic warfare payload and defensive laser system. This way, you can get just the right feature mix you need to put the maximum pressure on the enemy while not having to buy a drone that needs to accommodate all these systems simultaneously, which would be far more expensive. What Boeing is doing here with a modular nose is far more of a game-changer than it may seem at first glance. Using the entire nose section is a great idea because that is where some sensors and payloads have to live in order to be most effective. The SR-71 Blackbird family of aircraft used a similar system successfully decades ago.
The entire system's open architecture backbone means that various vendors and even foreign operators of the aircraft can design and build their own unique missionized payloads for the nose of the aircraft. Fielding integrated electronics that work within an air arms existing ecosystem can be one of the most challenging and expensive factors when exporting combat aircraft. This makes doing that much easier and it also means foreign purchasers—and yes, the aircraft is intended to be exported—can also get some industrial offsets and organic technological investment by developing these payloads for their own ATS aircraft.
An Economical Loyal Wingman?
A major objective of the program is to make these drones remarkably affordable. The concept is that an air arm should buy them in some quantity in order to enjoy their impact on the battlespace in the best possible way. Being able to risk them without a loss being a huge hit to a force's tactical jet end strength is also really important. Although the Boeing ATS team couldn't give any hard figures, they did say that they would be competitive with Kratos' Valkyrie, a loosely similar product that is in testing with the USAF now that you can read all about in these past War Zone articles linked here, here, here, and here, all capabilities considered.
The goal of that program is to make an 'attritable' (optionally disposable) loyal wingman drone that is survivable and highly flexible, but costs around $2M apiece—not much more than the price of a Tomahawk cruise missile. It isn't clear exactly how closely the two programs match up, but considering these aircraft will be used in very high-risk scenarios, the idea that some will be lost in combat is factored into the general concept that underpins them. It's all a balance of capabilities, including survivability, versus cost.
This balancing act significantly influenced the ATS design. While the aircraft was designed with low-observable (stealthy) features, performance and cost had to be weighed against the airframe's detectability. When asked why a flying wing wasn't used instead of the more traditional fighter-like layout, the ATS team noted that flying wings are expensive to make and unforgiving to fly. They also noted that their design has some maneuverability tricks up its sleeve with its relatively simple, but powerful four-control surface arrangement, which includes relative huge 'tailerons' that are similar to those found on the YF-23. As such, the team thinks their aircraft is 'good enough' across a wider range of performance and signature objectives, which allows them to keep its price and complexity relatively low.
Speaking of complexity, or lack thereof, the ATS aircraft's entire wing section is made out of just two big composite pieces, one for the upper wing and one lower wing. They are built using an advanced out of kiln resin-infusion process that was pioneered on the 787. The rest of the unmanned jet also uses advanced composite manufacturing that lowers cost and time of production, while also being strong, corrosion-resistant, and light-weight.
With all this in mind, Boeing is really trying to position this aircraft system as a disruptive force multiplier that is accessible to a multitude of air arms around the globe, not just its RAAF partners. This could eventually include the Pentagon's own air forces. Boeing says that the company is already talking with the RAAF's American counterparts about their requirements and how the ATS could fit into them. Clearly, with Kratos' Valkyrie being a hot program within the DoD at this time, the interest in this type of capability is quite high, especially if Boeing Australia and the RAAF can outpace Kratos and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) team behind the XQ-58 Valkyrie program when it comes to the maturity, flexibility, and the cost of their new loyal wingman system.
The wild card in the U.S. market is that we still don't know what lives in the shadows, specifically what Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have supplied the U.S. military with in regards to stealthy unmanned combat air vehicles over the years, if they have done so at all.
Boeing also noted in our discussion that the ATS isn't just capable of integrating with other Boeing aircraft, it can work with any manufacturer's aircraft without deep integration expenses or elaborate hardware changes. This is how it was designed and that alone should break down some barriers when it comes to exporting their loyal wingman to non-Boeing aircraft users abroad.
It's Not Just About A Buddy For Fighter Jets
The ATS won't just leverage its snap-on nose payload and svelte airframe to assist fighters in their various missions, such as counter-air, strike, reconnaissance, and electronic attack. Instead, Boeing sees formations of their ATS drones accompanying larger combat aircraft, such as tankers, maritime patrol aircraft, and airborne early warning and control jets, too. This makes great sense for Australia, which is investing heavily in all these high-value aircraft types.
This high-value asset protection mission would free up manned fighters for other front-line missions and would provide a ring of defense around an air force's most vulnerable, but also most critical aerial assets. You can read all about this emerging mission set in this past piece of ours.
Boeing realizes that even with a wide-panel display, the confines of a fighter jet's cockpit may not be able to maximize the potential of the ATS. Larger aircraft, like those mentioned above, could include big ATS crew stations with wide screens to more intricately control a formation, or even formations, of ATS drones. Boeing noted that they see a single fighter controlling three or four of the unmanned aircraft, so it isn't hard to imagine an aircraft like the E-7 Wedgetail controlling a multiple of this number.
With this in mind, tethering these aircraft to really any mothership is possible, which opens up a lot of possibilities. That being said, when I asked about these aircraft acting as discreet unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) that would not be tethered to a manned airborne platform, the team declined to talk about it, but they did say their focusing is on the loyal wingman concept of operations.
Some of this may have to do with regulations and red tape when it comes to deploying and even exporting an AI-infused high-performance air combat drone. Part of the looming demonstration phase will hopefully dampen any of trust concerns, many of which emanate from Hollywood more so than reality. So, it appears that the ATS will be kept on a leash, at least for now.
The X Factor
Although Boeing was willing to share a ton about their new loyal wingman with us, a number of questions still remain. These include just the basic targeted performance of this aircraft. What is its kinematic performance, range, G-rating, takeoff and landing requirements, life expectancy, and more? Even more importantly, what is its payload? Although its nose can snap on and off, what type of weapons and expendables can it carry and deploy? Can it be aerial refueled? And maybe most importantly, how much agency will the aircraft have over its own mission in the foreseeable future?
Regardless of these lingering questions, this is a huge accomplishment for Boeing, which, as we have detailed before, was an absolute leader in pioneer advanced unmanned combat drone technology, but somehow got passed over when it came to realizing a pathway to see that technology make it into an operational state until recently. With the addition of the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-borne tanker contract in the U.S. Navy, and now the potential introduction of a very disruptive ATS into the global combat aircraft marketplace, Boeing could be poised to become the leader in what is undoubtedly the future of aerial warfare.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com