A Loyal Wingman for Singapore’s Air Force?

By Ben Ho

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is in the midst of a far-ranging transformation that constitutes a larger effort by the city-state to transition its military to the next generation, with the teaming of traditional manned and unmanned platforms expected to play a pivotal role, explains Ben Ho.

In fact, the vision of the Singapore Armed Forces a decade and beyond from now, or SAF 2030, is one underpinned by cutting-edge capabilities that are highly network-capable, and recent procurements are exactly that.

In the airpower realm, Singapore announced in January that it will purchase four Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning jets, with an option for another eight. The fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is slated to replace the F-16 Falcons currently in service as the latter will approach obsolescence in the next decade.

Going forward, the RSAF should perhaps explore the feasibility of the “Loyal Wingman” unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) concept that is currently being developed for the Royal Australian Air Force and with the export market in mind.

This is an idea that Peter Layton of the Australia-based Griffith Asia Institute first broached in a 2019 Interpreter article on Singapore’s F-35 decision and is worth exploring in much more depth.

Next-gen capabilities

As devised by Boeing, the Airpower Teaming System, to give the Loyal Wingman’s official name, will act as a very useful complement to the F-35. In this regard, Singapore should consider buying the drone when it becomes available on the market as it would help maintain the RSAF’s cutting edge post-2030.

Simply put, the Loyal Wingman will fly alongside a manned aircraft (one of the first drones to be able to do so) to augment it or act as a decoy to protect the latter from the enemy. Given its internal weapons bay, it will also have kinetic capabilities.

It is worth noting that the initial press release on the Loyal Wingman states that it will be capable of electronic warfare, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

According to a video released by the aerospace giant a few months later, the roles of the Loyal Wingman will be three “Fs”: force multiplier, force protection and force projection. These three roles are encapsulated nicely in a scenario by Malcom Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute:

“Imagine a swarm of Loyal Wingman UCAVs controlled by a four-ship formation of F-35s… The less stealthy UCAVs would be geographically located well away from the stealthy F-35s to avoid betraying their location, but close by in terms of being part of a resilient network.

“The F-35s, in turn, are networked to a Wedgetail [Airborne Early Warning and Control or AEW&C aircraft] to the rear. The UCAVs are the forward sensor in the ‘sensor to shooter’ link, but can also be a forward shooter, against an adversary equipped with long-range airpower, while the F-35s and Wedgetail can stay out of harm’s way.”

In a similar concept of operations, RSAF Loyal Wingmen could network with the service’s F-35s and Gulfstream G550 AEW&C planes.

Indeed, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has posited attaining air dominance “through the co-ordinated employment of fighters, unmanned air vehicles and airborne surveillance aircraft, which are integrated through real-time knowledge-based systems and networks”.

On this note, RSAF chief Major-General Kelvin Khong has stressed the need for the integration of “traditional air combat capabilities with technologies that multiply the effects of airpower”, and the latter describes the Loyal Wingman to a tee.

In the larger scheme of things, MINDEF has spoken of the concept of integrated knowledge-based command and control (IKC2) “tying… air, land and sea capabilities into a synergistic whole”, and this would be “achieved by leveraging on networks of sensors, shooters and communications to provide comprehensive awareness and self-synchronisation on the battlefield”.

With its multiple capabilities, the Loyal Wingman could have a pivotal role to play in actualising IKC2.

Dollars and sense

Specific details about the Loyal Wingman’s performance are currently not available, but it is said to be comparable to the aircraft (like the F-35) it will deploy with.

This suggests that the Loyal Wingman should be quite similar to the JSF in such attributes as speed, range and signature management. If that is the case, it would be wise for Singapore to acquire the Loyal Wingman from the cost-capacity angle.

This is because replacing the entire RSAF F-16 fleet (three squadrons with a total of 60 planes) with an equal number of F-35s would come up to a prodigious amount of defence dollars.

It is telling the RSAF’s F-15SG Strike Eagle jets were procured in 2005 to replace the A-4SU Skyhawks, and it was not on one-for-one basis arguably due to the former’s status as a “boutique” platform; one that is highly capable but costly. In fact, a total of 40 Strike Eagles were eventually procured to replace the Skyhawk force, which was slightly over 60 strong during its peak in the early 2000s.

Considering the high unit cost of the Joint Strike Fighter, it will not be a surprise if less than 60 of it are bought. The current cost of the F-35B is around US$115 million while the cheaper F-35A, which is an option for Singapore’s future acquisition plans, is US$90 million.

Even if the costs for these two F-35 variants were to go down in the future, we are looking a price tag in the ballpark of a still princely US$70-80 million.

One way around this would be to accept having a smaller F-35 force and supplement it with drones like the Loyal Wingman.

The latter should be considerably cheaper than the JSF when it finally comes into active service. Indeed, Canberra has contributed almost US$30 million for the development of three prototype Loyal Wingmen.

Even if the deployable version of this platform were to cost more than the US$10 million experimental one, we should still expect a few Loyal Wingmen to amount to the price of one F-35.

Moreover, a sizeable Loyal Wingman fleet can also help to negate the likely smaller size of the RSAF’s boutique F-35 fleet, helping the service to exploit Lanchester’s square law for aerial operations. Finally, there will be lower training costs as the platform is unmanned and can be controlled by a human pilot or ground crew.

In sum, it would make a lot of sense for Singapore to get the Loyal Wingman just from the cost-capacity angle. After all, the republic’s economy is maturing and even though defence spending had been stable even during downturns, this cannot be guaranteed going forward.

What is more, the SAF has and will continue to face a manpower crunch, an issue that could be alleviated by new technologies, of which the Loyal Wingman is one.

Going forward

All in all, the Loyal Wingman is arguably a suitable fit for the future RSAF, however, it is still very early days as the concept itself surfaced only last year.

Though its prototype flight is slated for this year, this remains to be seen given the travails of Boeing during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Nevertheless, the RSAF should – at the very least – do well to monitor its development going forward.

When the Loyal Wingman program becomes more mature, Singapore could perhaps request for a role in it akin to that during the early years of the JSF program.

Being a Security Cooperation Participant (SCP) afforded the city-state “an early opportunity to assess the JSF’s ability to meet the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s longer-term operational requirements for a multi-role fighter”. Singapore’s SCP status also allowed it to track the development of the JSF and assess how it could be integrated with defence needs.

Robust Singapore-Australia ties, especially in the defence realm, should facilitate a similar arrangement for Singapore in Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System program.

Ben Ho is an associate research fellow with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

This article was published by Defence Connect on April 9, 2020.