The Compelling Case For AUKUS Developing A Loyal Wingman Drone

The nature of air combat is about to drastically change. The need to rapidly gain advanced and highly autonomous uncrewed aircraft that work collaboratively with crewed types is becoming an imperative for U.S. and allied air arms. Aging existing fighter aircraft and newer ones that are increasingly expensive to acquire and sustain, paired with pilot shortages and rapidly evolving threats abroad mean that the old way of doing the air combat business is becoming no longer sustainable. Achieving combat mass even as crewed fleets shrink over the long haul is the primary existential problem these high-performance drones are set to solve, along with a slew of tactical ones. Thousands of these aircraft will be needed, and those economies of scale can be leveraged to drastically bring down costs while also expanding the fleet sizes of dwindling tactical air arms.

America’s need for this capability and its massive impact on its future airpower equation is largely the same as its closest allies. This simple fact represents an absolutely massive opportunity — joining forces to achieve unprecedented efficiency through scale while also realizing total interoperability where it is going to matter most.

One recent headline-grabbing international partnership has laid the perfect groundwork for realizing just this unprecedented opportunity.

Since the Australia-United Kingdom-United States defense cooperation agreement, or AUKUS, was first announced most of the attention it has received has focused squarely on the matter of nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. However, the three countries are already using the deal to more actively collaborate in other arenas, including advanced drones and artificial intelligence and machine learning-enabled autonomy technologies. With that in mind, it is an excellent starting place for a new multi-national partnership to develop an advanced loyal wingman-like drone, possibly adjacent to or directly in sync with the U.S. Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program.

A common uncrewed aircraft designed to be able to work closely with stealthy 5th generation, but especially older 4th generation fighters, as well as other aircraft, would offer a huge battery of benefits to the U.S., British, and Australian armed forces. Cooperative acquisition of such a drone could help speed up development, foster unparalleled interoperability during future operations, ease global fleet management strains, reduce logistical and sustainment burdens for all parties involved, accelerate ongoing upgrades and innovation, spread out costs, and above all else, achieve economies of scale that would provide strategic-level advantages. In doing so, such an endeavor would provide a massive leg up in the race for retaining air supremacy. And all of this would be perfectly in line with AUKUS’ goals.

In other words, AUKUS should seize this incredible opportunity and begin work immediately to develop shared loyal collaborative combat aircraft that can specifically work with existing 4th generation fighters as well as F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

What is AUKUS?

Per the Pentagon, AUKUS, which came into effect in September 2021, is intended, in part, to “promote deeper information sharing and technology sharing; and foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains.” The partnership’s first major initiative, or Pillar I, is the Australian nuclear submarine effort, which you can read more about in detail here.

An artist’s conception of the future SSN-AUKUS nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarine. U.K. Defense Ministry

AUKUS’ second initiative, or Pillar II, has a broader focus on enhancing “joint capabilities and interoperability” with a particular eye toward “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.” In April, the three partner nations conducted a test in the United Kingdom in support of Pillar II that included, among other things, a demonstration of a capability to send targeting system updates to swarms of drones in flight.

Some of the drones involved in the AUKUS Pillar II test in April 2023. U.K. Defense Ministry UK MoD

“We recognize the immense importance of this collaboration in strengthening our combined national security of our nations,” Abe Denmark, senior AUKUS advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, said in a statement about the April test. “We are pooling our expertise and resources through our AUKUS partnerships, ensuring that our militaries are equipped with the latest and most effective tools to defend our nations and uphold stability around the world.”

The case for a common AUKUS drone

All three AUKUS partners already have an expressed interest in advanced drones with high degrees of autonomy intended to work closely together with crewed combat jets and other aircraft. From what has already been seen, the AUKUS agreement looks to be an ideal framework for new and more direct collaboration on this kind of capability. Foreign cooperation has always presented an additional avenue for valuable burden sharing in terms of cost and other aspects of a project, especially when it comes to advanced military aircraft.

At the same time, multinational weapons projects also are more complicated in some ways. But for a drone that has acceptable technological risk and can be used by F-35s and 4th generation fighters, this should be able to be overcome and the benefits should drastically outweigh the drawbacks. Considering this trio is already sharing their most guarded nuclear secrets, at least to a degree, working together should be streamlined.

A rendering showing an F-35 flying with various types of drones. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

Broadly speaking, when it comes to research and development, an AUKUS loyal wingman drone program would allow all three countries to pool their resources. They would also be able to leverage existing work on relevant systems and technologies, some of which could be quite mature. This in turn could help accelerate development and reduce risks.

Turning to the acquisition process, resources, including relevant industrial bases, could again be pooled to speed up production and reduce costs. Assembly, if not outright production, could potentially occur in all three AUKUS countries. As such, everyone could share in the industrial and economic benefits of the project.

Above all else, working together, the AUKUS partners would be able to take advantage of greater economies of scale. With three countries involved in the project instead of just one, even an ostensibly “small” production batch of uncrewed aircraft with a common design, or at least a high degree of commonality between nation-specific iterations, could still involve a significant number of total airframes. This, in turn, could help drive down unit costs and spread out the cost burden of acquiring potentially large numbers of these drones. The reality is that orders for these drones will likely be much larger and achieving great combat mass at as low a cost as possible is the bedrock of the CCA-like concept.

Discussions about cost scaling and balancing against capabilities requirements have become increasingly important in discussions about advanced uncrewed and crewed military aircraft in general. The U.S. Air Force has said that it is focusing heavily on a concept of “affordable mass,” which you can read more about here, when it comes to its CCA effort to avoid the entire effort becoming cost prohibitive and counterproductive. Affordability requirements are also known to be central to the service’s secretive Off-Board Sensing Station (OBSS) advanced drone program for the same fundamental reasons.

Renderings of drones General Atomics is developing around a common core “chassis.” A design from this family, which is collectively called Gambit, was chosen as the winner of the Air Force’s OBSS competition in February 2023. GA-ASI

During a panel discussion at the 2023 Air and Space Forces Association’s Warfare Symposium in March, Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, the director of Plans, Programs, and Requirements at the Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC) stressed the need to get CCAs, specifically, to “a price point” where enough of them can be purchased to really “provide [an] effect on the battlespace.” He added that “then it is really a game changer.”

“Affordability is only as good as the capability that goes with it. No matter how cheap it is, if it doesn’t achieve the effect we need… in the battlespace, then it’s not going to do what we need it to do,” Brig. Gen. Dale White, the Air Force’s program executive officer for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft, said at the same event. “So affordable mass has to be based on affordability and capability… We have to start thinking through the lens of lethality for development.”

Operational benefits of a common design

If the drones made for the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom are identical in their configuration, or at least very closely related, the benefits of this cooperation would extend much further into the operational realm. It is hardly a secret that allies using the same systems, including common aircraft designs, offer benefits for interoperability in real-world scenarios. The nodes in any combined force using the same or similar platforms are able to keep up with each other from a performance perspective and are better able to communicate and share information, among other critical advantages.

On top of all this, when it comes to drones with high degrees of autonomy, a standardized “computer brain” and associated control systems flying them, as well as data links and overall networking architecture, offer the potential for huge synergies when it comes to interoperability and flexibility. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy are already expecting to have complete interoperability when it comes to drones developed under the CCA program. This means that Air Force crewed aircraft will be able to seamlessly control Navy CCAs and vice versa. The CCAs from both services will also be able to freely network amongst themselves. Clearly, this is a massive advantage and can really open up tactical possibilities, especially in a long-range contested fight. You can read all about this revelation in this past report of ours.

The Navy currently envisions its carrier air wings ultimately becoming around 60 percent uncrewed, starting with the fielding of the MQ-25 Stingray drone tanker in 2026.

The U.S. Navy currently expects its first operational carrier-based drone to be the MQ-25 Stingray, designed primarily as an aerial refueling platform. Boeing is developing the MQ-25 and has conducted a number of initial ground and flight tests using the T1 demonstrator seen here. Boeing

A command and control scheme that also ties in British and Australian uncrewed aircraft would take this to an entirely different level. Relevant service branches from any of the AUKUS countries could conceivably share systems in near-real-time in the middle of operations, handing off control regardless of who might have initially brought them into the battlespace or where they came from. This could allow for very flexible retasking in response to a changing threat picture or other shifting operational demands. Beyond that, if the uncrewed systems have significant endurance, which they should possess, they could potentially stay on station and support multiple waves of friendly crewed platforms rotating in and out of the area in question and be redirected to where they are needed as the battle unfolds.

A high level of interoperability could be extremely useful when combined with future drones with significant, if not fully-autonomous capabilities, potentially networked together as a single swarm. Though uncrewed platforms developed through programs like CCA are expected to operate closely with crewed aircraft, they will be able to perform a growing number of sub-tasks with very little, if any need for constant human interaction. They will also be able to act as uncrewed combat air vehicles, without a loyal wingman mission component, especially in swarms. As such, being able to readily hand off control from one node to another could have important impacts on how individual drones and swarms are managed across a broad section of the battlespace.

All of this presents benefits in terms of training and sustainment, as well. Using common or at least highly integrated supply chains could help simplify logistics issues, both from operational and maintenance perspectives, as well as drastically reduce associated costs. Common or even shared physical infrastructure in multiple countries could be used to support these drones, as well. This could be tied in with shared production of the drones, to begin with, at least at the component level, as well as assembly, or even complete license production in multiple locations.

Relevant work is already being done under AUKUS

In short, the general idea being presented here is the trio of AUKUS countries using the same CCA-like drones, all knowing how they work, what they can do, being able to use them collaboratively in a coalition environment, and producing, maintaining, and sustaining them using common supply chains and infrastructure. Some collaboration on relevant technologies is already happening, as was evidenced by the aforementioned test in April.

“This capability of mission-tailored adaptive AI is going to be able to deliver a capability greater than what any country can do alone,” Hugh Jeffrey, Australian deputy secretary for Strategy, Policy and Industry, said in a statement about the AUKUS Pillar II test. “That really is the rationale for AUKUS.”

“The trial demonstrates the military advantage of AUKUS advanced capabilities, working in coalition to identify, track and counter potential adversaries from a greater distance,”  Lt. Gen. Rob Magowan, U.K. deputy chief of Defence Staff for Military Capability also said. “Service personnel, scientists, and engineers from our three nations combined to develop and share critical information during operations to enhance commanders’ decision making.”

The AUKUS test in April involved lower-end drones that would not be suitable for use as loyal wingmen. However, the kinds of software-based artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies that were demonstrated could be applied more broadly, or used for further developments more directly relevant to higher-end drones.

The Collaborative Combat Aircraft program and the MQ-28

With regard to loyal wingman-like drones more specifically, the U.S. Air Force has publicly said that Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat, which was first developed for the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Airpower Teaming System (ATS) program, is a “technology feeder” for its Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) effort. The focus on CCA, which is part of the U.S. Air Force’s larger Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative, is the acquisition of at least one type of advanced drone with significant autonomous capabilities that will primarily operate close in concert with stealth combat jets.

The U.S. Air Force is currently planning to acquire at least 1,000 CCAs, but it has already said that number could grow substantially and might eventually include multiple different types of drones. The 1,000 CCA figure is based on a concept of operations that would pair two of the uncrewed aircraft with each of the 200 6th generation crewed stealth combat jets the service is also looking to buy as part of NGAD, as well as 300 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters.

“We’re partnering to learn from the Australians and what they’re doing with their [ATS] program… And then they’re doing the same thing for us,” Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, the director of Plans, Programs, and Requirements, at Air Combat Command (ACC), said at a media roundtable about the CCA program back in November 2022. “This is really about a campaign of learning, it’s not about MQ-28 Ghost Bat” specifically.

“So for example, when I talk to the Australians about what they’re doing in their MQ-28 program – theirs not ours – mostly what we talk about is, how do you mission plan? What is [sic] your maintenance people doing? And how are you organizing that unit?” he added.

In the meantime, the U.S. Air Force has acquired at least one MQ-28 to support various test efforts. The Ghost Bat is a maturing design that has already flown and that the RAAF is looking to start using operationally by 2025.

Not only is the Ghost Bat one potential platform that is already being flown by the U.S. and Australia, but it seems to be able to fit into a slightly lower tier than what the USAF is dreaming up for NGAD and CCA. This is very important as the design and its systems need to be able to be shared across all three countries and be used in conjunction with 4th generation and 5th generation fighters, not really 6th generation ones. So while CCA may be a higher-end type, an AUKUS CCA-like drone could be slightly lower in its complexity, capabilities, cost, and technological risk.

Lockheed Martin

The focus of the USAF’s CCA program on providing a drone for 5th and 6th generation fighter types is also an issue. 4th generation fighters could use CCAs just as much, and arguably even more than their more advanced counterparts. In fact, providing them with a CCA drastically expands their tactical flexibility and survivability, and pairs a stealthy drone that can operate far forward with a non-stealthy fighter. The USAF and its AUKUS partners can realize incredible value by providing their legacy fighters that will serve for many years to come with CCAs. And of course, there is no reason why higher-end fighters could not use them as well. But the case for equipping 4th generation fighters with a loyal wingman is maybe most compelling, especially as air arms seek to retain these assets’ relevance for as long as possible.

So, an AUKUS CCA could possibly sit below the NGAD-related CCA, and well above so-called ‘attritable’ (optionally expendable) types of less ability, servicing 4th generation types and F-35s.

Pathways to a new AUKUS partnership

Another possibility could just be the expansion of the USAF’s CCA program into a multi-national effort. The CCA effort is, however, highly classified, as is much of the rest of NGAD, which could pose challenges to bringing in foreign partners. Maybe a slightly downgraded variant, like the one described in the last section could overcome these issues.

In addition, Australia and the United Kingdom are among the United States’s closest allies and often cooperate at a very high level on military affairs. A prime example of this is the highly sensitive AUKUS effort to help the Royal Australian Navy establish a nuclear-powered submarine fleet, which is expected to involve a direct U.S. sale of one new-production Virginia class type. It is also known that Australian officials had discussions with their American counterparts about the possibility of acquiring the B-21 Raider stealth bomber. Though the potential for a RAAF B-21 force seems extremely remote, it does further underscore the very high level at which the countries discuss potential arms sales and other collaborative initiatives.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo

“We know we’re going to do our own competition in our own industrial base for a CCA… But we haven’t excluded the potential of us… marrying up [with the Australians] at some point on an acquisition pathway in the future. That is still a possibility,” Maj. Gen. Jobe said when asked directly about foreign participation in the CCA program at the roundtable last year. “I won’t speak for the Australians or anybody else, but for – Brits, for example, we’ve had conversations with them. We’re going to keep those dialogues open so that we don’t close the door to any of them, but we’re not ready to really commit.”

In November 2022, the U.K. Ministry of Defense announced its latest loyal wingman initiative, which it said would leverage work done on a number of previous projects.

Drones for aircraft carriers and other projects

The Navy and the USAF working closely to develop their CCAs that can seamlessly interoperate with each other’s forces is a good indication of how an AUKUS CCA could be possible. And the Naval requirement is not unique to the U.S. Navy.

Boeing is notably already pitching a variant or derivative of the MQ-28 that can operate from carriers. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom has shown an interest in this carrier-capable Ghost Bat, at least on some level, as a possible addition to the air wings on its two Queen Elizabeth class carriers. These ships are currently configured as short-takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) types with a skip jump at the bow and no arresting gear. However, last month, British authorities unveiled plans to refit these ships with catapults and arresting wires. Though many questions remain about this ambitious retrofit effort, the stated goal is to allow the vessels to accommodate uncrewed aircraft and possibly crewed ones, as well.

The Royal Navy has explored other drone options for its carriers in the past. It is now planning to conduct testing regarding the operation of the General Atomics Mojave short takeoff and landing (STOL) drone from the Queen Elizabeth class, which would not necessarily require new launch and recovery capabilities.

Interestingly in this context, Boeing just recently offered the first look at an MQ-28 in the United States. The Ghost Bat was photographed alongside the demonstrator the company has been using as part of the development of the MQ-25 Stingray tanker drone for the U.S. Navy. Boeing released that picture on its social media accounts along with a text that at least implied the possibility of the two designs serving alongside each other in the future.

Another wildcard is the Royal Australian Navy’s two Canberra class landing helicopter dock warships. These ships were built with a ski-jump on their bow and could potentially be reworked to handle CCA-like drones in a similar fashion as what the U.K. and Turkey are looking to do with their flattops.

Multi-role by design

Another prime example of the value of what would be a more middle-tier AUKUS collaborative drone could be to help provide force protection for high-value assets like airborne early warning and control aircraft and aerial refueling tankers. These platforms would be prime targets for an opponent, especially in a higher-end conflict. CCAs would offer a cheaper alternative to defending these critical aircraft while also freeing up more advanced crewed and uncrewed platforms for other missions. The CCA’s longer endurance than their crewed counterparts would also be a major plus. Depending on the drones’ sensor fits, they could also expand the situational awareness of these critical assets, act as electronic warfare platforms, and even as decoys, if need be.

Australia’s Ghost Bat, once again, has been pitched with this application in mind. That’s not to say that any other manufacturer’s solution would not be relevant too. Certainly, other firms have floated the idea.

A rendering of MQ-28 Ghost Bat drones flying together with a Boeing E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft. Boeing

And, we must underscore again, a CCA could also operate independently or in swarms without a crewed platform nearby or even part of its mission. So these aircraft can be used for a wide array of missions beyond just loyal wingman roles. From strike to electronic warfare to reconnaissance, the loyal wingman component is just a gateway into the uncrewed autonomous air combat future.

These mid-tier CCAs could also perform non-combat duties, like acting as aggressors during training. Demand for low-cost mock adversaries that can adequately represent 5th generation fighters, stealthy cruise missiles, and other threats is only growing as time goes on. At the same time, it is simply not cost-effective to provide a useful volume of capability like this using actual crewed 5th generation combat jets, especially when trying to replicate large hostile force packages. The U.S. Air Force is already looking at acquiring adversary drones that can stand in for 5th and advanced 4th generation aircraft, but through initiatives currently separate from CCA, although the two concepts can and will likely cross-pollinate.

A larger international opportunity

Seeing as economies of scale, literally of proportions not seen since the Cold War, is absolutely key to the CAA concept, the AUKUS CCA-like program could expand beyond that alliance. While the development should be limited to this group in order to streamline and simplify the process of moving from design to hardware on the ramp, a much larger opportunity lies beyond.

If a broad array of other close allies with similar requirements – Japan, South Korea, and most NATO members, for example – had the opportunity to join such a program once it is mature or otherwise buy the final products in an export configuration, orders could explode and unit costs could plummet. The distributed nature of such a program could only add to its resiliency and pose a massive strategic program for potential foes.

Non-AUKUS adopters of the system would likely be very hard-pressed to find something of equal capability for the same cost and level of support considering the potential volumes of production that would be realized even before exports.

But with this in mind, time is of the essence. The demand for these kinds of combat aircraft is becoming more pressing around the globe with each passing day. AUKUS could rapidly work to make this common mid-tier CCA a reality and thus bring it to a wider market before many options already exist or indigenous programs that seek to realize a similar capability mature.

Australia already clearly has exporting the MQ-28 in mind. It is a design that was developed by U.S. firm Boeing’s Australian division. As a result, it was not limited by the provisions of U.S. export control laws and regulations, which can be quite onerous for many countries.

So, with all this in mind, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States should move fast to develop a common CCA and in doing so, reshape the air combat arena with their own design on truly a massive scale.

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