The Australian government directed the Australian Department of Defence (DoD) to accelerate development of the MQ28-A Ghost Bat Block 2 autonomous uncrewed aerial system (UAS) “without delay” in mid-July. The announcement once again demonstrates the importance of the MQ-28A to Australia’s defence capabilities, as most recently highlighted in the country’s Defence Strategic Review, which listed it as an “immediate investment priority.”
The MQ-28A is a collaborative development program between the Royal Australian Air Force and Boeing Australia. It is the first airframe to be designed and built in Australia in over 50 years and is designed to be a loyal wingman style drone that will fly in conjunction with and be controlled by a crewed aircraft. The Ghost Bat will be able to carry a variety of payloads, which are situated in the aircraft’s nose and can be easily removed and replaced depending on the mission.
The MQ-28A is among the most advanced loyal wingman development programs in the world, having gone from being unveiled in February 2019 to a successful maiden flight in February 2021. The Australian DoD has already ordered 10 MQ-28A aircraft, four of which are thought to have flown. Significantly, the MQ-28A program has included testing in live environments as well as over 17,000 hours of testing of mission system in digital or virtual environments, indicating the value that digital engineering and environments can provide in UAS development.
Loyal wingman UAS are seen as important force multipliers and as a way to reduce risk for militaries around the world that are investing in highly capable but also expensive fourth and, especially, fifth generation fighters. In a global environment in which anti-area / access denial capabilities have become more lethal and longer-range, the need to develop capable, lower cost (frequently referred to as attritable or reusable) uncrewed capabilities to absorb possibly high attrition rates is crucial to operating in contested combat environments. While operational concepts for attritable loyal wingman UAS are still under development and may vary by aircraft or country, the most prominently discussed use case involves 3 – 5 aircraft such as the MQ-28A flying forward of and communicating with a crewed aircraft serving in reconnaissance, electronic warfare, strike, suppression of enemy air defences, or decoy missions, among others, while keeping the crewed aircraft further away from contested environments.
In addition to Australia, the United States, United Kingdom, France / Germany / Spain, Turkey, China, Russia, Japan, and India all have at least one loyal wingman program under development (some of these are tied to sixth generation fighter programs) while several companies are developing loyal wingman solutions independently.
The MQ-28A is actually being considered as part of US efforts to develop and field a range of attritable aircraft designs, and the United States and Australia have signed a Collaborative Combat Aircraft Development Project Arrangement that enables sharing of classified technology and information on the MQ-28As sensors, teaming behavior, and secure data links, among other features. Australia’s Defence Strategic Review endorsed this technology sharing as a priority, stating that MQ-28As “program should be a priority for collaborative development with the United States.”