Manned Unmanned Aircraft Teaming India

Sub Title : The operation of manned and unmanned assets in concert towards a shared mission objective

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 2 May – Jun 2023

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra PVSM AVSM VM VSM

Page No. : 52

Category : Military Technology

: May 27, 2023

Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) is the operation of manned and unmanned assets in concert towards a shared mission objective. It is becoming one of key innovations that will pave the way to future airpower. In India the initial MUMT experimentation is being led by HAL with the proposed LCA based Combat Air Teaming System in collaboration with a private player


Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has announced that flight testing of India’s ‘Loyal Wingman’ warrior drone being developed by them with a private sector firm would begin in 2024. The Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) drone is being designed to accompany manned Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets like LCA Tejas and Rafale. It could be launched from a mother aircraft like the C-130, or Jaguar or Su-30 MKI class fighters. There after the drone would 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. The indigenous Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) has many private sector players.

The Manned Unmanned Teaming Concept

The maturing of unmanned aerial systems, autonomous operations using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and more reliable secure data-links have made it was possible to have a combined mission of manned and unmanned aerial platforms. This coupling helps ensure accuracy, operational flexibility, and continuity of machine learning. Incorporating unmanned autonomous systems into mission planning expands mission parameters without exposing the more expensive manned aircraft and the airborne crew to high threat environment; the unmanned 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. Wingmen platforms could be as large as a small fighter, have fighter-like performance, and able to fly long ranges and have large endurance. Integrated sensor packages on-board could support many missions. They could even carry weapons. They could fly in variety of formations and could perform coordinate manoeuvres.

USAF Loyal Wingman Approach

US Air Force (USAF) has already reached the stage of operationally fielding the next-generation unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). The Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie loyal wingman is an experimental stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) for USAF’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) project. The Valkyrie flew first flight on 5 March 2019. The XQ-58A Valkyrie will release smaller drones, escort the F-22 or F-35 during combat missions, and be able to deploy weapons or surveillance systems. The Gremlins program is an important strategic program for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). First flight of the X-61A UAV was in November of 2019. It will be released from existing large aircraft as well as fighters. Upon completion of their mission, the Gremlins will be recovered in the air by a C-130 transport aircraft and transported to facilities to undergo preparation for the next mission.

DARPA has also funded development of Skyborg, a software and hardware package designed to allow a variety of low-cost, loyal wingman UAVs to fly and carry out missions autonomously. The Skyborg project is a USAF Vanguard program developing unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) intended to accompany a manned fighter aircraft. Contracts have been awarded to Boeing, General Atomics, Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems and Northrop Grumman.

A multi-hour test flight came after a Skyborg-equipped unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) conducted its maiden flight in April 2021. Two General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger UAVs demonstrated in-flight communication between each other and “responded to navigational commands, stayed within specified geo-fences, and maintained flight envelopes,” while monitored from the ground command and control station.

Northrop Grumman Corp’s Model 437 stealthy fighter jet with a 4,500 km range will involve flying alongside the F-35 jet fighter. USAF plans to build an airborne, autonomous ‘best of breed’ system of systems. The UAVs would be paired with USAF’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.

Operational Employability

Operational applications of the Loyal Wingman for combat support operations and precision targeting are well established. Typically around five UCAVs would be controlled by a single modern manned fighter aircraft. IAF could have the LCA as a demonstrator and later the SU 30 MKI as the “mother” 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 manned aircraft. The manned aircraft would assess the operational environment and situational awareness and assign tasks to the unmanned 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 manned aircraft, giving the enemy multiple threats to counter. But even without on-board weapons, a drone swarm could serve as a decoy to befuddle the enemy, sending out false signals that make it difficult for the adversary to differentiate between the manned and unmanned aircraft.

A SEAD and Strike combination could mean the unmanned 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. They will also be able to fire air-to-air missiles, and directed energy weapons to target enemy fighters or electronics. Unmanned wingmen could target enemy airfields, army installations, radar sites and enemy surface-to-air missile launchers. A whole bunch of opportunities are possible. The exact mix of manned and unmanned aircraft, what types of sensors and weapons the UAVs would carry would have to be mission specific. Some actions would be pre-programmed into the unmanned aircraft. In the air the fighter aircraft can change the course of actions. The two have to operate in conjunction, and not necessarily accompany in near vicinity. Initially it may be better that the mother aircraft is a two-seater. The concept is highly technology and communication-link dependent. The risk of loss of long range satellite link with UAV controlled from ground gets reduced in MUMT. UAVs have also been tested in aerial refuelling and cargo roles.

Entry and Exit from Combat

Launch could be independently from the bay of large cargo aircraft, similar to the palletized munitions concept. They could also be carried in the bomb bay of a B-21 bomber or on pylons of a fighter aircraft, but a combat aircraft would rather preserve its limited space for munitions. The flight leads and mission commanders will need fully integrated interfaces to be able to supervise, direct, control and command their autonomous teaming aircraft. It could even be from the surface or a marine platform. Drones will enter combat zone with the aircraft that they’re paired with. Recovery could be aboard the aircraft they’re paired with, or on land/water with parachute.

Advantages of MUMT

Most modern manned fighters cost close to $100 million. Each unmanned wingman is projected to cost under $5 million. The finite payload and range capability of the manned fighter can be augmented by using unmanned aircraft. These add to offensive power with reduced human risk. Unmanned aircraft could be deployed much deeper in enemy territory, can fly more risky flight profiles or 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. But it has to be ensured that the pilot isn’t overloaded while trying to conduct that orchestra.

Threats to MUMT

The adversary could disrupt the formation communications, and therefore will need levels of autonomy that allows the drones to carry out their assigned missions. There could be some limits put to their autonomous operations in such contingency in terms of timing, geographic reach and missions which would have to be programmed. Also contingencies of autonomous system misbehaviour would need a protocol or a “get home” command and system. Autonomous evasive actions if a threat emerges would need programming. The ethical questions of conducting warfare and potentially killing humans with autonomous devices must be addressed.

China’s Low-observable flying wing UAV

AVIC 601-S is an UAV development program containing series of Chinese low-observable flying wing UAVs. The “Sharp Sword” and “Dark Sword” have been progressed for service induction for reconnaissance and eventually combat missions. Dark Sword has high emphasis on manoeuvrability which is achieved by adopting canard controls, twin tails and diverter-less supersonic inlet. Dark Sword allows for ‘loyal wingman’ or MUMT with aircraft such as Chengdu J-20. FH-97A is a designated loyal wingman that made its debut at the Air Show China 2022 held in Zhuhai. China claims that it can carry out surveillance and air defence suppression. It can carry a variety of weapons. The radius of action is 1,000 kilometres.

MUMT Plans and Options India

The initial MUMT 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 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 & from its mid fuselage to its tail like Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie. It has a single serpentine air intake on the top of its fuselage that leads to its two engines. It will be powered by modified HAL PTAE-7 or HAL HTFE-25 turbofan engine. The CW will mostly serve as a ‘sensor amplifier’ for the LCA, flying out ahead of the manned aircraft and using its sensors to feed information back to LCA. The CW would be equipped with suitable ISR/ EW payloads and will internally mount air-to-air missiles or air-to-ground weapons. The CW itself could launch up to 24 ALFA-S swarm drones. It can carry two new-generation short-range or beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles externally, and two DRDO Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW) in its internal weapon bay. It will be equipped with an electro-optic/infrared payload, Active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, inertial navigational unit, and a jammer for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and combat operations.

HUNTER is essentially a wingman that flies like an air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) 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. It could also conduct kamikaze (suicide) missions as it carries around 250 kg of warhead.

ALFA is a system which carries 4 swarm drones inside its container. It can be launched from a combat aircraft. The container has a range of about 100 Km after launch from 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 in 2024, and induction by the end of the decade.

CATS Infinity (CI) drone is to operate at a predetermined position at extremely high altitudes (65,000ft). It would use of self-generating power (solar panels) so as to remain aloft for extended periods of time (up to 3 months). It will provide enhanced real-time ISR inputs for deep-strike aerial missions. The first prototype is likely to be completed by 2025.

In the long run the unmanned wingman could be on upgraded Jaguar dedicated-strike fighters (some calling it the Jaguar Max), and SU-30 MKI, both of which are with IAF in large numbers. Initial drones are planned to be powered by the PTAE-7 turbojet engine which powers the indigenous DRDO Lakshya high speed target drone. Later, a more powerful engine would be required to match the mission flight performance requirements. 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 Chinese air threat.

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. Many Indian defence start-ups are also working on MUMT and some are in consultation with HAL.

Way Ahead

China is way ahead in drone swarms and MUMT. Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar Defence has made rapid strides in drone technology, and is emerging as a significant player including in Ukraine. Iranian drones have been deployed by Russia in Ukraine. Russia’s S-70 Okhotnik-B (Hunter) is a stealth-capable combat drone that will team with fifth-generation Su-57. Pakistan is also investing heavily in these relatively cheap force multipliers. The Indian drone market is growing rapidly. The future is mostly unmanned or optionally manned. India must get its act right through collaboration between public and private sector, and has the potential to become a global hub. India would have to show urgency and national commitment.