US, Australia unveil revolutionary killer drone
Australia has unveiled a mock-up of a next-generation unmanned combat drone capable of launching combat missions and conducting electronic surveillance operations in security hotspots like the South China Sea.
Jointly developed by US aerospace giant Boeing and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as part of the “Loyal Wingman” program, the Unnamed Air Vehicle (UAV) is expected to enter full production in five to six years. be exported to other American allies. in Asia-Pacific.
The drone is one of the cornerstones of a strategic shift by the Australian Air Force towards affordable and more “consumable” aircraft that can be used to support the advanced missions of jet fighters and reconnaissance aircraft.
“It’s designed to be a cheaper platform, a shield if you will around the more expensive platforms, to protect our servicemen who might be on a Poseidon or a Wedgetail or an F-35A,” said the Minister of Defense Christopher Pyne in February. 27 at the Avalon Aerospace Show.
The long-range P-8 Poseidon aircraft, manufactured by Boeing, now perform most of the RAAF reconnaissance missions, with the Wedgetail early warning aircraft. The American-made F-35A replaces the F / A-18 Hornet also produced in the United States as a front-line fighter.
A new fleet of 15 P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft is due for delivery by 2023, and the first of 72 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter stealth fighters arrived last year. They are also expected to be delivered by 2023.
Designed to have a range of more than 3,200 kilometers, the new generation drone will be designed either to accompany these planes on mission, or to operate independently. Pilots will be able to control the plane from their own cockpits, but the RAAF has denied it was heading for fully autonomous jets.
“We need the flexibility and agility of humans combined with the speed of a machine. When we put them together, we get a pretty amazing result, ”Air Chief Marshal Leo Davies said in an interview with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published on Wednesday.
“Loyal Wingman”, a program under development by Boeing since 2016, envisions a “companion” aircraft similar in size to a fighter that would be equipped with artificial intelligence and would switch between surveillance and combat roles at the push of a button. a button.
Similar planes are being designed by other American companies to meet the demand for more affordable planes.
“We didn’t design this as a one-off solution, but as a very flexible solution that we could outfit with payloads, sensors, different sets of missions to complete whatever their fleet is,” said Kristin Robertson, vice -President and CEO of Boeing Autonomous Systems. “Don’t think of it as a specific product designed to accomplish just one mission. “
This is the first time that a drone has been developed by an American company in a country other than the United States and it would be Boeing’s largest investment of its kind. The planes will initially be assembled at factories in Australia, but factories could be opened elsewhere if regional demand is sufficient.
The first concept drone is expected to take off in 2020, with production starting several years later. It is not known how many Australia plans to buy.
“I would say we’re a few years away from exporting, we’re probably years away from operating it here in Australia,” Pyne admitted.
Few details have been released on its likely theater of operations, but drones will likely focus on long-range patrols over the South Pacific and South China Sea, where China’s growing presence raises concerns. of security. They will work with other drones to provide a surveillance umbrella.
In June, Northrop Grumman of the United States was tasked with providing six Triton drones that will gather information to share with the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and New Zealand, Australia’s allies in the Five Eyes intelligence network.
Built at a cost of A $ 7 billion (US $ 5 billion), the Newts will be able to stay in the air for more than 24 hours and will be able to monitor shipping lanes in the South China Sea, the South Pacific and even in Antarctica. The first will not be delivered until 2023, and the others two years later.
There is speculation that the Tritons and Loyal Wingman drones will both be periodically based at Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, which will be jointly operated by Australia and the United States. once it has been upgraded. Manus is within reach of the South China Sea.
The Tritons are not designed to carry weapons, but Australia is purchasing a range of MQ-9 Reaper drones from General Atomics in the United States that will be equipped specifically for warfare. Up to 16 will be acquired from around 2022.
With a range of just 1,850 kilometers, the Reapers will be used primarily for coastal defense and to support search and rescue or disaster relief operations. They were selected before the Israeli variant IAI Heron TP, which has an even more limited range of 1,000 kilometers under satellite control.