What is going on in with the UK programme and ‘Loyal Wingmen’ in general?
The UK has walked away from Project Mosquito, an effort to create a technology demonstrator of a ‘Loyal Wingman’ technology (an unmanned fast aircraft that could support manned aircraft in high-threat environments). Jim Smith looks at what this means – and considers the current state of autonomous buddy aircraft and what the UK wants and needs.
In a fairly recent article for @Hush_Kit, examining the future of air operations:
I observed that “… the US, China, and Russia, all appear to be converging on a system-of-systems approach to both air combat and strike missions” and also noted that “the ‘system-of-systems’ approach I am considering is also intended to allow unfettered operation over hostile territory, is ‘offensive’ rather than ‘defensive’ in nature, and appears to be the direction being taken by the US, Russia, and China.”
In this context, it was extremely interesting to read, from defbrief.com that the UK has decided not to proceed with its unmanned loyal wingman demonstrator being examined under Project Mosquito.
Unpacking this a little, we can observe the following key points:
- The LANCA programme will not proceed beyond the design phase
- The capability can be achieved more cost-effectively with smaller (and by implication) more specialised off-board assets
- The intent is to introduce such capabilities in the near-term
- Examination of loyal wingman concepts will continue as part of the Future Combat Air Systems Enterprise
So, what might lie behind this change in direction?
At the simplest level, it seems the work done towards LANCA has given an indication of the likely cost, size, complexity, and hence timescale, of developing the MoD’s concept of a loyal wingman system, and the result is not in line with the near-term needs of the RAF.
By implication, cost-effectiveness and timeliness appear to be the main issues, and short-term alternatives are suggested, while keeping the option open of broader and longer-term studies and options under the FCASE program.
What is the ‘capability need’?
All well and good, and perhaps a sensible compromise, in order to contain costs while continuing FCASE studies and keeping an eye on the Australian and US unmanned combat aircraft adjunct programs, perhaps with an eye to a future Off-The-Shelf purchase. However, there remain some fundamental question about what the UK might actually be looking for in the Future Combat Air Systems Enterprise.
Of course, the critical aspects will be to determine what future capability is likely to be needed, in what timescale, against what threats, and in what operational context. By the latter, I mean whether the capability is primarily perceived to be driven by the UK acting in coalition, or in a stand-alone capacity.
The details of all that would be secret, but some guesses can be made. Firstly, if the UK is involved in direct conflict with a 1st tier opponent such as Russia or China, this is only credible in a coalition, as the capability and force structure to do so in a stand-alone sense would be unaffordable.
A second consideration would be how long a conflict might need to be sustained. All recent experience suggests that the idea of a ‘short, sharp conflict’ against capable opposition are long gone. Recent UK coalition operations have lasted years, not months.
A third consideration is whether the UK would be involved in primarily defensive, or primarily offensive operations. Since the second world war, this has been a changing picture. As a post-war colonial power, the UK was involved in all sorts of operations. This shrank when activities were constrained to no longer be ‘East of Suez’, and changed again with the Gulf War and successor activities including engagement in Afghanistan. So, Air Defence of the UK and its Colonies focussed down to Air Defence of the UK, and then expanded to Support to the US in Coalition.
From all this, I conclude that the main actual driver for the UK Force structure is now supporting the US in coalition operations, essentially worldwide and of long duration, but leavened by an expectation that the US would do the heavy lifting against the most difficult targets.
Short-term and Longer-term needs
The Project Mosquito announcement essentially defers introduction of a loyal wingman capability to consideration under the FCASE project. Instead, the focus is to shift “to aggressively pursue the RAF’s unchanged firm commitment to integrate advanced uncrewed capabilities into the near-term force mix with more immediate beneficial value”.
Hence, given the near-term force mix essentially being JSF and Typhoon, off-board, unmanned assets to support those assets. From which one might expect off-board defensive aids, including deployable EW capabilities, possibly Datalink and communications relays, perhaps some ISR and damage assessment capabilities, and perhaps deception drones to aid in defence suppression. Are numerous, separate, unmanned and deployable capabilities a cheaper option than a loyal wingman?
Almost certainly, provided they are managed intelligently, for example using a simple unmanned bus concept, which would be loaded with the appropriate mission systems to deliver the different capabilities. Developed as separate capabilities – much less certainly, especially if integration with the platform or other unmanned systems were to be required.
If we assume the longer-term objective is to support FCASE, then the timescale should allow mature consideration of what loyal wingman capabilities are required. It would also allow possible alternative options to appear, with UA and AUS systems as possible alternatives to a UK programme.
The capability arguments suggest a sustainable rather than throw-away capability would be required. While there is a certain attraction in using unmanned QF-16 aircraft as a thrust to erode defence capabilities ahead of a ‘Shock and Awe’ first strike mission, this is a destabilising, overtly offensive, one-shot capability that, however attractive, could not really be a credible approach for the UK. Or, indeed, anyone, except perhaps the US or Israel.
A loyal wingman which was, itself, survivable (aka stealthy), but which might be used to deploy decoys, jammers, harassment drones, anti-radar and, perhaps, offensive cyber capabilities might well be a good adjunct to whatever manned system comes out of FCASE (Tempest?).
Such a system would, inevitably, be nearly as expensive as a low signature manned system, but, through its ability to forward-deploy defence suppression aids, could make survivable manned strike and air superiority missions much easier to deliver. The wingman platform might also be adaptable for other capabilities such as Air-to-air refuelling, electronic surveillance, target acquisition and designation.
The UK appears to have had a look at a near-term Loyal Wingman capability and realised that any Lightweight and Affordable system is unlikely to be available in the short-term, and perhaps unable to deliver the capability it requires. A short-term shift to multiple, separate, deployable systems appears likely to be the outcome. To deliver this in a cost-effective way will require early attention to detail in integrating the various systems with their platforms, and perhaps with each other.
Continuation of the loyal wingman studies under the FCASE project also appears to be a sensible option, and to have the benefit of allowing UK thinking on capability requirements to mature, while keeping a watchful eye on relevant International programmes. Critical questions to be resolved will be the balance between survivable and attritable systems; identification of the missions which can be delivered by unmanned systems; and designing a cost-effective integrated system to deliver the capability outcomes required.