With the growing cost of manned combat aircraft, and the rapidly improving capabilities of cheaper unmanned aircraft, the two are working more closely together, and countries around the world are developing ‘loyal wingman’ unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) in what is the next logical step in the evolution of combat aviation.
As the cost of fifth- and sixth-generation combat aircraft rises, air forces globally are fielding smaller fleets. Although unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are taking on an ever-larger number of tasks, from reconnaissance to refuelling, it is unlikely that manned aircraft will be replaced entirely.
Instead, loyal wingmen will function as force multipliers. They will also help sustain combat losses, taking the burden off a limited number of manned aircraft and their pilots.
Loyal wingmen offer the ability to carry out missions too difficult or dangerous for manned platforms while adding ‘combat mass’ to traditional fleets. They could scout ahead of manned aircraft, identifying and potentially destroying enemy air defences, conducting air strikes, or engaging enemy fighters in highly contested and dangerous airspace – in aerial combat, loyal wingmen would be far more agile than their manned counterparts and artificial intelligence-driven aircraft have generally proven superior to manned aircraft in mock combat trials. Loyal wingmen could also serve as communications nodes or relays for friendly forces, or jam and disrupt enemy radars and communications. Swarms of UAVs or loyal wingman would make it hard for the enemy to distinguish between high-value manned or unmanned aircraft, with loyal wingmen potentially functioning as expendable decoys.
Aside from expendability, low cost, and functioning as force multipliers, one of the other strengths of loyal wingmen is their significantly shorter development time compared to manned aircraft due mainly to smaller, simpler airframes that do not need to be tested as rigorously – development cycles of two years are not uncommon. Indeed, the technologies enabling loyal wingmen have been around for decades – as seen in the proliferation of UAVs in general – and are quite mature. Small and light guided weapons for loyal wingmen are widely available as well. However, secure datalinks, electronic warfare resistance, and doctrine still need to be developed further and improved.