SITREP: With “Skyborg,” Air Force hopes to give pilots a “loyal wingman”

By | October 6, 2020

This summer, the US Air Force awarded contracts to four companies to develop prototypes for the Skyborg Program, the Air Force’s effort to provide relatively inexpensive autonomous uncrewed combat aircraft to serve as robotic wingmen to human-piloted F-22 and F-35 fighters. Skyborg is one of three Vanguard initiatives—programs intended to stretch the Air Force’s capabilities with disruptive new technologies.

The US military has been talking about so-called “loyal wingman” drones for close to a decade. The Navy had its own carrier-based drone effort, which after successes in early testing morphed into a robotic refueling tanker program. But most of the US combat drone efforts have focused on providing slower, longer-flying propeller-powered drones for the least-sexy jobs in the air: surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeted air support. And the stars of that show, the General Atomics Predator and its larger Reaper sibling, are flown from a distance by human pilots communicating with ground and air forces.

The US Air Force's rendering of a Skyborg drone.
Enlarge / The US Air Force’s rendering of a Skyborg drone.
US Air Force

“Loyal wingman” drones would fly in formation with crewed fighters under the control of AI and at the command of their human flight leaders. The Air Force refers to the AI-piloted drones as “attritable“—not necessarily expendable, but far less costly to lose to enemy fire than an F-22 or F-35. The drones would act as weapons-carrying extensions of the human-flown aircraft they operate with. Much of the early testing, including footage of scaled-down jet drones from last year, focused on software that would allow them to fly safely in proximity to crewed aircraft.

Who’s who

Boeing, General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems have all been selected for the Air Force’s Skyborg Prototyping, Experimentation and Autonomy Development program, overseen by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and Air Force Research Laboratory. All four competitors have developed subsonic jet drones in the past.

Kratos’ effort is based on work done with AFRL on the company’s XQ-58A Valkyrie, the first aircraft designed with the constraints of low cost, low maintenance, reusability, and adaptability to missions usually tasked to fighter aircraft and built using commercial manufacturing processes.

Northrop Grumman had early successes with its X-47 carrier-launched drone prototypes and has built other long-range jet-powered drones, including the Global Hawk and the Navy’s Triton maritime patrol drone. And over a decade ago General Atomics developed the Avenger, a turbofan-powered platform developed from the MQ-9 Reaper, though the Air Force never purchased it in volume.

Boeing is building the Navy’s carrier-based tanker drone and is already working on a “loyal wingman” drone for the Australian Air Force, called the Airpower Teaming System—which will fly in formation with Australia’s Super Hornet fighters as well as the F-35.

Potential adversaries aren’t standing still, either. China is developing its own “loyal wingman”—one that can essentially turn into a cruise missile. And Russia’s Air Force has already flown its S-70 Hunter-B drone in concert with its new Su-57 advanced fighter aircraft—though the Su-57 has had a difficult history of its own.

Listing image by US Air Force