Ghost bat is an aircraft like no other
“No man is an island,” as the famous saying goes.
For combat pilots, this is especially true. Having a friendly aircraft, or several, fighting together as a cohesive unit is a time-tested way to leverage the combat effectiveness of each pilot and their machine.
This is the concept of "wingmen" and a strategy almost as old as aircraft technology itself.
While it is difficult to ascertain when it was “invented,” one of the first occurrences of it was in 1915. One German pilot, Oswald Boelcke is recorded as downing a French biplane chasing his co-combatant Max Immelmann.
This a clear example of the benefit of not flying alone in battle, and one that has been employed ever since.
But, the benefits of wingmen are only as good as the discipline of the pilots providing the role. They must always maintain sight of their flight leader and only break formation when explicitly instructed and authorized.
While the role of a wingman was developed during the days of dogfighting (now very rare) they are still critical for situational awareness when the lead aircraft needs to focus on engaging a target or vice versa.
All pilots usually faithfully fulfill such an important task, but humans are only human, and mistakes can happen. For this reason, modern Air Forces are looking for ways to ease the pressure on already stressed pilots with “wingmen drones.”
One example is currently in development by the Royal Australian Air Force (AAF).
Called the MQ-28A “Ghost Bat,” the AAF’s loyal wingman unmanned autonomous vehicle (UAV) is currently being developed by Boeing. This drone is powered by jets and is made to work independently with the most advanced fighter jets in the AAF, such as the F-35A, F/A-18F, and E-7A.
The drone will also incorporate technology from some select domestic suppliers, making it the first aircraft to be built on home soil in over 50 years.
The self-piloting drone will be run by artificial intelligence and take the place of human pilots as wingmen. It was made to be both offensive and defensive.
The new wingman drones are being designed to be able to keep up with their jet-powered human comrades and will have an operational range of 2300 miles (3700 km).
The AAF currently has orders for 3 such craft, which will bring its total stockpile to around 6 working drones.
Initially, their role will be for surveillance and reconnaissance, but more violent variants are bound to be on the books in the future.
Time will tell if the “Ghost Bat” will live up to expectations, but this might be a glimpse of the future of air combat.