The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Boeing Australia are building this fighterlike plane for possible operational use in the mid-2020s. Trials are set to start this year, and although the RAAF won’t confirm the exact location, the quiet electromagnetic environment, size, and remoteness of the Woomera Prohibited Area make it a likely candidate. Named for ancient Aboriginal spear throwers, Woomera spans an area bigger than North Korea, making it the largest weapons-testing range on the planet.
The autonomous plane, formally called the Airpower Teaming System but often known as “Loyal Wingman,” is 11 meters (38 feet) long and clean cut, with sharp angles offset by soft curves. The look is quietly aggressive. Three prototypes will be built under a project first revealed by Boeing and the RAAF in February 2019. Those prototypes are not meant to meet predetermined specifications but rather to help aviators and engineers work out the future of air combat. This may be the first experiment to truly portend the end of the era of crewed warplanes.
Although it’s a Boeing platform, it will be designed and built entirely in Australia. That has some pretty significant implications for the future of Australia’s defence industry. The Loyal Wingman is designed to act as a force multiplier for manned fighters like the F-35A, F/A-18F Super Hornet and E/A-18G Growler, and larger manned aircraft like the E-7A Wedgetail or KC-30A refueller. Its primary role is projecting power forward, while keeping manned platforms out of harm’s way. It also seeks to protect ‘combat enablers’ like the Wedgetail from an adversary’s long-range offensive counter-air capability.
Although the planned aircraft is relatively small, according to Boeing it will have a range of more than 3,700 kilometres. That’s sufficient to operate over the South China Sea flying from RAAF Tindal near Darwin. It will carry integrated sensor packages to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and electronic warfare (EW), and has an internal weapons bay that eventually could be armed with standoff weapons and precision bombs. It will be able to fly autonomously, rather than being remotely piloted, which is vital.