Boeing has announced that it will be producing an autonomous jet aircraft capable of flying combat missions that will be ready to fly as early as 2020.
Boeing Airpower Teaming System
The aerospace company, which produces both commercial and military aircraft, says the jet fighter will support crewed aircraft during combat missions. It is expected to gather intelligence, conduct surveillance and reconnaissance, and serve as an early warning system, according to Reuters.
Called the Boeing Airpower Teaming System, the autonomous jet aircraft should reduce the risk of combat missions by flying for longer stretches at a time, perform higher G-force producing maneuvers, and processing intelligence data much quicker than current aircraft.
It will be developed in Australia, which will be that country’s first domestically developed combat aircraft in decades, and it will be about 38 feet long and have a range of 2,000 nautical miles.
“This aircraft is a historic endeavor for Boeing. Not only is it developed outside the United States, it is also designed so that our global customers can integrate local content to meet their country-specific requirements,” said Marc Allen, the president of Boeing International. “The Boeing Airpower Teaming System provides a transformational capability in terms of defense, and our customers – led by Australia – effectively become partners on the program with the ability to grow their own sovereign capabilities to support it, including a high-tech workforce.”
It is expected that four to six of the autonomous jet aircraft can fly in support of an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, according to Shane Arnott, the director of Phantom Works International, Boeing’s research and prototype subsidiary. This allows militaries to “bring that extra component and the advantage of unmanned capability, [so] you can accept a higher level of risk,” he said.
Multiple Roles for the Autonomous Jet Aircraft
The role of the autonomous jet aircraft will depend on customer needs, Boeing said, and can be modified to suit those roles. When paired with other aircraft like the E-7 Wedgetail of P-8 Poseidon, the Boeing Airpower Teaming System can perform different roles than flying close combat support, like early warning, surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering.
“It is operationally very flexible, modular, multi-mission,” said Kristin Robertson, vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems. The versatility of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System makes it an attractive investment for militaries who are looking to get greater power projection at a reduced investment. Without having to concern itself with crew safety, entire systems can likely be stripped out of the autonomous jet aircraft, making room for extended functionality and reducing the costs.
This would also allow the autonomous aircraft to take on more dangerous assignments without fear of losing skilled pilots in combat situations. “The Boeing Airpower Teaming System will provide a disruptive advantage for allied forces’ manned/unmanned missions,” Robertson said. “With its ability to reconfigure quickly and perform different types of missions in tandem with other aircraft, our newest addition to Boeing’s portfolio will truly be a force multiplier as it protects and projects air power.”
Growth in Autonomous Aircraft Development
Boeing isn’t the only defense contractor exploring autonomous aircraft. Lockheed Martin Corp and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions Inc are also exploring autonomous aircraft, and the US had been using Predator drones to fly combat and surveillance missions for close to two decades now.
The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in the United State issued a report last year calling on the US Air Force (USAF) to explore the use of autonomous support aircraft to augment a lower number of more lethal, 5th-generation jet fighters like the F-35A.
“Human performance factors are a major driver behind current aerial combat practices,” they wrote. “Humans can only pull a certain number of Gs, fly for a certain number of hours, or process a certain amount of information at a given time.”
The USAF has indeed been exploring autonomous fighter and support craft already, under the U.S. Air Force 2030 project, which envisions the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter pairing up with stealth-capable combat drones, which they’ve dubbed the “Loyal Wingman” concept, according to Derrick Maple, the principle unmanned systems analyst at IHS Markit.
“The U.S. has more specific plans for the wingman concept, but Western Europe will likely develop their requirements in parallel, to abate the capabilities of China and the Russian Federation and other potential threats,” he said.
With the introduction of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System, however, the USAF would likely be highly interested in moving quickly to implement their 2030 plan using Boeing’s aircraft, especially since the Boeing Airpower Teaming System can be used in other roles as well.
“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,” Robertson said of Boeing's Airpower Teaming System. “Don’t think of it as a specific product that is tailored to do only one mission.”