Details have emerged regarding the Commonwealth government’s proposed expansion of the Loyal Wingman program.
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During the Coalition government’s official campaign launch in Brisbane on Sunday (15 May), Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged to invest an additional $454 million to accelerate Boeing Australia’s Loyal Wingman project, which involves the delivery of MQ-28A Ghost Bat drones (recently renamed) to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
The Prime Minister said the investment boost would fund the development of “a further seven aircraft”.
However, in light of the new commitment, the total size of a prospective RAAF Ghost Bat fleet was unclear, with the government previously announcing it would “acquire three additional aircraft”, separate to the three prototypes originally earmarked for development.
Defence Connect can now reveal Prime Minister Morrison’s latest pledge to develop a further seven autonomous Ghost Bat platforms would take the total size of the future fleet to 10.
A spokesperson from the Department of Defence has confirmed the first three prototypes developed as part of a previous phase of the program would not be owned or operated by the RAAF.
“Three prototype aircraft produced earlier in the program for concept demonstration purposes are not owned by the Commonwealth of Australia,” the spokesperson said.
Prime Minister Morrison’s latest election campaign pledge would take the government’s total investment in the Loyal Wingman program to over $600 million.
The funding boost is tipped to accelerate the delivery of the uncrewed platforms, now scheduled to enter service with the RAAF in 2024-25.
Approximately 70 per cent of the next-generation uncrewed aerial systems’ components are set to be designed, engineered and manufactured locally, supported by Boeing Australia’s new facility at Wellcamp Airport in Toowoomba, Queensland.
The Commonwealth is expected to engage with an additional 46 Australian firms, as well as international industry partners and allies throughout the program.
“This investment in world-leading technology further advances Australia’s first-mover status in a highly competitive industry and establishes the Loyal Wingman Program as a serious competitor in key export markets,” Minister for Defence Peter Dutton said following the government’s latest announcement.
Boeing Australia recently advanced the operational readiness of the platform after demonstrating multiple payloads, semi-autonomous behaviours and crewed-uncrewed teaming in the digital environment.
Late last year, two Loyal Wingman aircraft completed successful flight missions in South Australia’s Woomera Range Complex, marking the first time the landing gear was raised and engaged.
This followed an inaugural flight of the Loyal Wingman in February 2021.
Once fully operational, the platform, which measures 11.7 metres long and boasts a range of 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 kilometres), is tipped to deliver fighter-like performance, while also offering intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
By leveraging artificial intelligence, the drones are expected to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other jets.
The Ghost Bat program has been lauded as an innovation success, including by US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.
Kendall noted the USAF is exploring opportunities to further integrate uncrewed capability, leveraging artificial intelligence.
[Related: PM spruiks major Ghost Bat boost]