Crewed-Uncrewed Teaming

Sub Title : The future of air combat and the increasing role of unmanned systems

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2024

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 28

Category : Military Affairs

: March 22, 2024

In a groundbreaking move, the U.S. Air Force awarded contracts for the development of an AI-driven ‘loyal wingman’—uncrewed aircraft that will enhance the capabilities of crewed fighters, potentially at an expendable cost. India’s HAL is set to test its variant in 2024, a significant leap in air warfare strategy.

On 23 July 2020, US Air Force (USAF) gave demonstration contracts to Kratos, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and General Atomics as part of their Skyborg program, an effort to field an uncrewed wingman for crewed fighters, at a price that could make them expendable. More recently, in February 2024, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Aerospace Systems Directorate successfully flew the XQ-67A, an unscrewed air vehicle (UAV) at the General Atomics’ Gray Butte flight operations facility near Palmdale, California.

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has announced that flight testing of India’s ‘Loyal Wingman’ warrior drone would begin in 2024. The loyal wingman drones will accompany manned Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets. They may be launched from a mother aircraft like the C-130, Jaguar or Su-30 MKI class fighters. They would thereafter be controlled by the fighter through a secure data-link. HAL had first displayed a loyal wingman mock-up at their pavilion in Aero India 2021.

Crewed-Uncrewed Teaming (CUT) as a Concept

The maturing of uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), the autonomous operations using artificial Intelligence, and more reliable secure data-links have made it possible to have a combined mission of crewed and uncrewed aerial platforms. The Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat, previously known as the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS) and the Loyal Wingman project, is a stealth, multirole, UAV. It is designed to work as a smart team with existing military aircraft as a force multiplier and complement and extend airborne missions. Without exposing the more expensive manned aircraft to high threat environment, the uncrewed Wingmen could perform Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) or tactical early warning missions, and Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD). The low-cost design allows operators to confidently put it on the front-line.

In October 2020, an Apache AH-64E, a Textron Shadow RQ-7BV2 tactical UAV and a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Gray Eagle UAV successfully worked together to carry out an air-to-ground missile attack trail. The Franco-German collaboration venture for the sixth-generation fighter aircraft would also include CUT technology.

Many Wingmen platforms could be as large as a small fighter, have fighter-like performance, and able to fly long ranges and have large endurance. They could even carry weapons, fly in variety of formations and perform coordinated manoeuvres.

US Loyal Wingman Pushing Ahead

Fielding loyal wingman UAVs is a top priority for the USAF. The experimental stealthy uncrewed combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator was paired with crewed aircraft. The aim was to develop cheaper uncrewed alternatives to crewed aircraft. Valkyrie would escort the F-22 or F-35 during combat missions, and be able to deploy weapons or surveillance systems. A Skyborg-equipped UAV conducted its maiden flight in April 2021. Northrop Grumman Corp. has designed a new autonomous jet fighter aircraft intended to accompany manned combat jets into battle. The drones will fly alongside crewed aircraft to help extend the aircraft’s sensing range and provide an additional weapons bay. The USAF wants to “operationalise uncrewed combat aircraft in the fighter category”.

More recently, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) made progress on its Dynetics X-61A Gremlins program, which seeks to deploy and then recover swarms of small, sensor-laden drones, from cargo planes in flight. In October 2021, DARPA flew and successfully recovered in mid-air a small Gremlin drone for the first time using a C-130.

Typical Loyal Wingman Operations

Wingman drones could redefine air warfare. Typically, around five UCAV would be controlled by a single modern crewed fighter aircraft. The forward flying wingmen would broaden the “mother” aircraft’s situational awareness using infrared, electromagnetic, radar or visual sensors. They would also map out target area, identify the location of radars and air defence systems and clear the corridor for the crewed aircraft. The crewed aircraft would assess the operational environment and situational awareness and assign tasks to the uncrewed aircraft. The physical tactical position of other aircraft in formation would depend on the type of mission.

They could also serve as communications nodes for friendly forces, or conduct electronic warfare operations by jamming enemy radars, communications or other signals. If they are large enough to carry their own armaments, they could carry out their own air-to-air or air-to-ground strikes alongside the crewed aircraft, giving the enemy multiple threats to counter. But even without on-board weapons, a swarm of drones could serve as a decoy to befuddle the enemy, sending out false signals that make it difficult for the adversary to differentiate between the crewed and uncrewed aircraft.

A SEAD and Strike combination could mean the uncrewed members could fly nearly 5-7 minutes ahead of the strike. Initial drones will be armed with precision-guided weapons such as air-to-surface missiles or a laser-guided bomb. Future versions of the platform will also be able to fire air-to-air missiles to target enemy fighters. Uncrewed wingmen could target enemy airfields, army installations, radar sites and enemy surface-to-air missile launchers. A lot of actions would be pre-programmed into the uncrewed aircraft. The mother aircraft would be able to make amends. Initially it may be better that the mother aircraft is a two-seater. Despite Artificial Intelligence (AI), total UAV autonomy is still far and has legal issues.  CUT will combine the strengths and limitations of both the crewed and uncrewed platforms.

Significant Cost and Crew Safety Advantages of CUT

Most modern crewed fighters cost close to $80 million whereas a uncrewed wingman is projected to cost under $5 million. The combination will be cheaper, potent and reduce potential casualties. This will also allow better low-risk deeper penetration into highly contested areas. The UAV could fly much riskier flight profile and do harsh manoeuvres that were restricted in manned aircraft due physiological limits of the aircrew. A weapon loaded drone could also do a Kamikaze attack on a very high value target. Drones will be reusable, but inexpensive enough for the Air Force to afford to lose them in combat. An autonomous drone swarm could be flying independent of the CUT for decoy or independent mission.

China and Russia Pushing Ahead in CUT

China is often called the Walmart of small drones. AVIC 601-S is an UAV development program containing series of Chinese low-observable flying wings. They began with 2.15 m long “Sky Crossbow” to gain experience on flying wing design. Sky Crossbow’s twin-tail was replaced by winglets in the “Wind Blade”. Once the control laws were mastered in the next design “Cloud Bow”, the winglets were dispensed with. Finally the “Sharp Sword” and “Dark Sword” were progressed for service induction for reconnaissance and eventually combat missions. Dark Sword has high emphasis is on manoeuvrability which is achieved by adopting canard controls, twin tails and diverter-less supersonic inlet. Dark Sword allows for ‘loyal wingman’ or CUT with aircraft such as Chengdu J-20.

Russia recently tested its S-70 Okhotnik-B heavy attack drone in an air-to-air combat simulation at the Ashuluk training grounds, an exercise that aimed to assess its compatibility with the Su-57 stealth fighter in an unmanned wingman role.

MUT Evolving in India

India’s initial experimentation is being led by HAL with the proposed LCA based CATS in collaboration with a Bengaluru based start-up, Newspace Research & Technologies. It will involve a recoverable wingman till the combat radius of 350 km. The range would increase to 800 km for a kamikaze attack on target. The proposal is to have CATS Warrior (CW), CATS Hunter (CH), CATS-Air Launched Flexible Asset (ALFA) and CATS Infinity (CI).

CW autonomous wingman drone would be capable of take-off and landing from land and in sea from an aircraft carrier. It will team up with the existing fighter platforms of the IAF like LCA Tejas, Su-30 MKI and Jaguar which will act like its mothership. It has a composite structure with an internal weapon bay & hybrid design whose front section looks like Boeing Airpower Teaming System wingman and the mid fuselage to its tail like Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie. It will be powered by two modified HAL PTAE-7 or HAL HTFE-25 turbofan engine. The CW will mostly serve as a ‘sensor amplifier’, flying ahead of the crewed aircraft, using its sensors to feed information back to mother aircraft. The CW would be equipped with suitable ISR/EW payloads and carry air-to-air missiles or air-to-ground weapons. The CW itself could launch up to 24 ALFA-S swarm drones.

HUNTER will essentially be a wingman that flies like an Air-Launched Cruise Missile that carry munitions to 300 km range. It will use satellite navigation and Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM) for guidance and manage autonomous target acquisition. After delivering payload, CH will be able to return and use its parachute for landing. ALFA is a system which carries 4 swarm drones inside its container. The container has a range of about 100 Km after launch from a combat aircraft. ALFA-S has 5 to 8 kg warhead, and can fly under its own propulsion and perform autonomous ground-target acquisition and attack. Both the Su 30 MKI and the Jaguar aircraft will be capable of carrying the ALFA-S. The first flight is expected by next year with induction a few years later.

India must prepare for CUT in Contested Environment

For over 20 years, the USAF flew drones like the MQ-9 Reaper in the largely permissive environments of the Middle East and Afghanistan, conducting airstrikes and flying ISR missions. World is now entering a new era where autonomous technologies extend and connect human capabilities across all domains at a small incremental cost. The future wars will be in greatly contested environment and thus the need for CUT. The technologies are fast getting in place. All major air forces are working on CUT. Aerial combat is also headed toward this teaming approach.

China has many large UAS under development. Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar Defence has made rapid strides in drone technology, and is emerging as a significant player. Iran has a successful drone program. Pakistan is also investing heavily in these relatively cheap force multipliers.

IAF’s capability concerns in view of shortfall in authorised fighter squadrons can also be partly made up through wingman drones, albeit the 42 squadrons will still be required in view of growing air threats.  The mother-aircraft modification, the wingman drones, and the two-way data-link would have to be developed indigenously. The drone sensors such as radar, and electro-optical systems of appropriate size and weight would have to be designed or acquired. The mother-aircraft cockpits would require reconfiguration of existing cockpit multifunction display and control buttons for passing command instructions to the drones. Many Indian defence start-ups are also working on CUT and some are in consultation with HAL. Some important technological breakthroughs would need to be achieved. In view of the leaps China is making in drone swarms and CUT, India would have to show urgency and national commitment. It would have to be collaboration between public and private sector. Time to act is now.