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Loyal Wingman. Wikimedia:

Loyal Wingman could transform Queensland defence industry

By Malcolm Davis

With the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) beginning to enter service with the RAAF, the question that is often asked is “What comes next?”

The United States Air Force’s acquisition head, Will Roper, announced last week that the US had already flown a demonstrator aircraft for its proposed next generation air dominance (NGAD) system — a year since early conceptual work — due to an accelerated digital development process. That process has now made the traditional 20-year development and acquisition cycle, that characterised the evolution of the JSF, look passe and outdated.

Australia needs to move just as rapidly in acquiring new capabilities to complement the JSF and boost the combat capability of the RAAF, to deal with a more challenging strategic outlook that was suggested in the recent 2020 Defence Strategic Update.

With this in mind, Boeing, based in Queensland, is leading Australia in development of a locally built platform, the Loyal Wingman combat drone, as part of its Airpower Teaming System. The autonomous drone is likely to play a key role in reshaping the RAAF’s “Strike and Air Combat” capability to allow for the restoration of a long-range strike capability after the retirement of the F-111C in 2010.

First, Loyal Wingman is designed to operate in partnership with crewed platforms such as the RAAF’s JSF, F/A-18F, and the E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft. With its modular design, it can undertake a range of missions including strike, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare. Tactically, it would be deployed forward of crewed platforms, going in harm’s way rather than risking pilots in a heavily contested airspace.

Second, the Loyal Wingman opens the option of expanding the size of the air force’s combat forces in sheer numbers, through exploiting low production and sustainment costs. Our air force has traditionally relied on small numbers of expensive, boutique, hi-tech aircraft to offer a qualitative edge. That edge is getting more difficult to sustain, especially as adversaries rapidly modernise their long-range airpower and missile forces. Quantity has a quality of its own, and the Loyal Wingman opens up the prospect of a larger, more powerful air force.

Third, the Loyal Wingman is a platform that can rapidly evolve over time, with production of airframes allowing multiple generations for role specialisation instead of just a single airframe to manage all tasks over many years. This approach is now being considered by the US under its Digital Century Series to produce smaller numbers of multiple-generation aircraft more rapidly, replacing the traditional 20-year acquisition cycle costing billions that is increasingly unresponsive to rapid technological and strategic change.

For Queensland, the Loyal Wingman offers a fantastic opportunity for creating and expanding a new state aerospace sector. The aircraft is a seed for future state-level defence industry development to grow. Designed and developed in Queensland, it shows that Australia can be a player in the global aerospace market, including developing its own combat aircraft that can be exported to key allies.

This means local supply chains with secondary- and tertiary-sector growth generating new job opportunities; with digital development practices and the use of fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies that will grow the defence industry for aerospace products, then generate innovation when applied to other sectors of the state’s economy.

Where other states are emerging as centres for naval shipbuilding, Queensland should take advantage of the potential offered by digital development of new air and space capabilities, through rapid manufacturing and design technologies. Loyal Wingman should be seen as the beginning of a process that could transform the state’s defence industry profile, both nationally and globally.

Originally published by: The Australian on 28 Sep 2020