Australia has unveiled a mockup of a new generation unmanned fighter drone capable of launching combat missions and conducting electronic surveillance operations in security hot spots like the South China Sea.

Developed jointly by US aerospace giant Boeing and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) under the “Loyal Wingman” program, the unnamed aerial vehicle (UAV) is expected to enter full production in five to six years and could be exported to other American allies in the Asia-Pacific.

The drone is one of the centerpieces of a strategic shift by Australia’s air force toward affordable and more “expendable” aircraft that can be used to support forward missions by jet fighters and reconnaissance aircraft.

“It is designed to be a cheaper platform, a shield if you like around the more expensive platforms, to protect our servicemen and women who might be on a Poseidon or a Wedgetail or a F-35A,” Defense Minister Christopher Pyne said on February 27 at the Avalon aerospace trade show.

Long-range P-8 Poseidon planes, made by Boeing, now conduct the bulk of reconnaissance missions by the RAAF, together with Wedgetail early warning aircraft. The US-made F-35A is replacing the likewise American-produced F/A-18 Hornet as its frontline fighter.

The P8 Poseidon in flight in a file photo. Photo: Wikimedia

A new fleet of 15 P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine planes is due to be delivered by 2023, and the first of 72 stealth F-35 Joint Strike Fighters arrived last year. They are also due for delivery by 2023.

Expected to have a range of more than 3,200 kilometers, the new generation UAV will be designed to either accompany these aircraft on missions or operate independently. Pilots will be able to control the aircraft from their own cockpits, but the RAAF has denied it is heading down the path to fully autonomous jets.

“We need the flexibility and agility of the human meshed with the speed of a machine. When we put those together, we’ve got a quite amazing outcome,” RAAF chief Air Marshal Leo Davies said in an interview with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that was published on Wednesday.

“Loyal Wingman”, a program under development by Boeing since 2016, envisages a “companion” aircraft of a similar size to a fighter that would be equipped with artificial intelligence and switch between surveillance and combat roles at the flick of switch.

Similar planes are being designed by other American firms to meet demand for more affordable aircraft.

Promotional image of Boeing-made warplanes. Photo: Facebook/Boeing

“We didn’t design this as a point solution but a very flexible solution that we could outfit with payloads, sensors, different mission sets to complement whatever their fleet is,” said Kristin Robertson, vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems. “Don’t think of it as a specific product that is tailored to do only one mission.”

It is the first time a UAV has been developed by an American company in a country other than the US and is reportedly Boeing’s biggest investment of this type. Planes will initially be assembled at plants in Australia, but factories may be opened elsewhere if there is sufficient regional demand.

The first concept drone is expected to take flight in 2020, with production starting several years later. It is unclear how many Australia plans to purchase.

“I would say we are some years away from exports, we are probably years away from it being in operation here in Australia,” Pyne admitted.

Few details have been released of its likely theater of operations, but the UAVs will probably focus on long-range patrols over the South Pacific and South China Sea, where China’s rising presence is raising security concerns. They will work with other drones to provide a surveillance umbrella.

An F18 fighter takes off from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt while transiting the South China Sea, April 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Karen Lema
An F18 fighter takes off from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt while transiting the South China Sea, April 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Karen Lema

In June, Northrop Grumman of the US was contracted to supply six Triton UAVs that will gather information to be shared with the United Kingdom, US, 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 Tritons will be able to stay in the air for more than 24 hours and will be capable of monitoring shipping lanes in the South China Sea, South Pacific and even 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 the Lombrum Naval Base at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, which will be operated jointly by Australia and the US 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 buying a range of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs from General Atomics of the US that will be equipped specifically for warfare. As many as 16 will be acquired from about 2022.

With a range of only 1,850 kilometers, the Reapers will primarily be used for coastal defense and to support search and rescue or disaster relief operations. They were selected ahead of Israel’s IAI Heron TP variant, which has an even more limited range of 1,000 kilometers under satellite control.