Shaping Space for Autonomous Systems in the Operating Force: The Case of the Loyal Wingman

By Robbin Laird

In the re-direction of Australian defence underway by the Labor government, a key challenge will be to make progress in the three to five years ahead for the ADF and the nation in meeting the growing global threats, while investments are being made to shape a different force down the road.

In such an effort, shaping a space for autonomous systems to assist in the process is an important aspect.

But as I have argued in my recent book on The Coming of Maritime Autonomous Systems, such systems complement the manned force, they don’t replace.

In fact, they will be incorporated not with a replacement of platform logic but as a kill web logic: how do these platforms as payload enablers add specific capability to solve key problems facing the force?

They are not one to one platform replacements which means that the logic for their inclusion in the forces is not inherited from the past but is part of shaping an innovative way forward. What these systems provide are payloads which can assist in various tasks to augment the lethality and survivability of the manned force.

A good example of what is entailed is the Loyal Wingman program in Australia.

In a February 9, 2024 press release this is what the government said about the program:

The Albanese Government has secured hundreds of highly skilled jobs while driving innovation in Australia’s local defence industry with the allocation of an additional $399 million for the ongoing development of the MQ-28A Ghost Bat.

The MQ-28A Ghost Bat, known as a Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), is being developed in cooperation with Boeing Defence Australia. It is the first military combat aircraft to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years.

An entirely new technology, it is designed to act as a loyal wingman which will be able to protect and support our military assets and pilots and undertake a wide range of activities across large distances, including performing combat roles.

The Government is now moving forward with the next stage of the program, including delivery of three Block 2 aircraft which have an enhanced design and improved capabilities. This funding boost will enable a focus on developing sensor and mission payloads, an integrated combat system and autonomous systems. 

The additional funding announced today also secures over 350 jobs across Australia and will ensure ongoing work for over 200 suppliers, supporting the local defence industry and further contributing to well-paid employment opportunities for Australians.

The further development of MQ-28A Ghost Bat comes after the Government agreed with a Defence Strategic Review recommendation that options be developed for collaboration and technology sharing with the United States. In line with the Government’s response, Defence signed a CCA development project arrangement with the United States on 30 March 2023. 

More than 70 per cent of the MQ-28A Ghost Bat delivery program is being directed towards Australian industry content, delivering substantial benefits to local companies and their highly skilled workforces.

Quotes attributable to Minister for Defence Industry, the Hon Pat Conroy MP:

“This is the first military aircraft to be designed, engineered and manufactured in Australia in more than 50 years and underscores the depth of innovation and expertise in our defence industry. 

“More than 200 Australian companies have already contributed to the MQ-28A program, including more than 50 small and medium enterprises within the supply chain. This project demonstrates that with the appropriate support from government, Australia’s defence industry can continue to be a world leader and a key source of jobs.

“The prosperity and security of our nation and will always be a top priority for the Albanese Government. That’s why giving our Air Force the critical capabilities it needs to protect Australians, and their interests, is paramount.”

Ok, but what problem is the new air system being designed to solve?

Where will it fit into the force?

And how does it add capability without burdening the sustainment enterprise within the ADF itself?

I had a chance to discuss the way ahead with Group Captain Darren Clare, Director Combat Futures. As the first squadron commander of the F-35, Clare has a good sense of the direction of air combat power, and is now working the issue of where a new autonomous air system would contribute most in the mid-term and thereby lay down capabilities for expanded use in the longer term.

Commander Air Combat Group, Air Commodore Tim Alsop (left) and Commanding Officer of No. 3 Squadron, Wing Commander Darren Clare in front of A35-010 which has been temporarily rebranded in celebration of Mr Felix Sainsbury on his 100th Birthday. Credit: Australian Department of Defence, May 14, 2020

A core problem facing the new generation of autonomous systems beyond the question of how to develop and build them is where to incorporate them in the force.

A loyal wingman is a key point, for a fifth-generation air force does not operate with wingmen in the legacy sense but in new ways in much wider formations. They are part of a kill web, so the place for the payloads on such an air system will be found in terms of what they can contribute that the combat force finds useful.

Where do they fit into the force?

How can they be sustained and operated by the force?

And what payloads can be credibly used by the officers charged with the authorities to use combat power for kinetic purposes?

In other words, determining where they fit into the force is crucial to ensure that we are not simply focusing on science projects, rather than on assets which are sustainable parts of an operating joint force.

For such capabilities to be significant, they must be more than aspirational: they must be in the hands of warfighters who understand what problems they are solving for the combat force.

In the discussion with GPCAPT Clare he underscored a number of key points which need to be addressed in order to bring the new systems into the operating force.

First, there is a need to demonstrate credible, achievable roles for autonomous systems.

Second, the demands placed on the operational force are significant and for the new systems to be adopted there is a need to convince commanders of new system’s worth.

Third, the squadron commander needs to be able to control and provide feedback on autonomous systems in real-time.

Fourth, to progress to use, it is clear that experimentation and prototyping of autonomous systems are needed to find the best way to integrate them into the Air Force.

Above all, the importance of understanding the problem being solved with autonomous systems, and why they are better than traditional systems needs to be demonstrated to convince warfighters to use the capability and to figure how best to integrate it into the force in ways that enhance rather than degrade operational performance.

One of my favorite examples of the limits of technology not integrated is how useful the introduction of radar was to the U.S. forces in Hawaii in dealing with the Pearl Harbor attack.

An example of how to integrate new systems into an integrated force was Air Marshal Dowding and his crafting of integrated system for air defense of Britain rather than simply having a single new technology – radar – introduced to the force.

It is clear at least in my view that an early credible use of such an air system would be to carry payloads which could make the new aircraft a node in a kill web, which could move data from Triton and distribute to the joint force.

Frankly, I think that weaponizing such a system is down the road but enhancing the contribution of P-8s and Tritons in terms of distributing data in the battlespace particularly with AI routing is a much nearer term capability which be valued by the operational force.

And perhaps this would happen earlier in the operational force if the new aircraft would not be managed by a squadron, but by an organization like the Surveillance and Response Group as part of their providing data to the joint force.

But getting on with use rather than conceiving of this program as if it were a traditional replacement air platform is critical if the ADF is to receive benefit from the program in the three to five year period in front of the ADF that needs to avoid a valley of reduced capability to pay for the future force.

Credit Photo: The Airpower Teaming System – ‘Loyal Wingman’ prototype aircraft during a flight over Woomera, South Australia. Credit: Australian Department of Defence, September 29, 2021.