The RAF has taken a step closer to joining the robot revolution in the skies, with the announcement it’s developing self-piloting fighter jets that will tag along as wingman to a human-piloted jet.
The “loyal wingman” concept is being rapidly developed and explored by militaries around the world.
Now, a £30-million ($41-million) contract to design and manufacture a prototype for the RAF has been awarded by the Ministry of Defence.
The prototype, called the Mosquito, will be made by Spirit AeroSystems in Northern Ireland over the course of three years.
Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston said in a statement, “We’re taking a revolutionary approach, looking at a game-changing mix of swarming drones and uncrewed fighter aircraft like Mosquito, alongside piloted fighters like Tempest, that will transform the combat battlespace in a way not seen since the advent of the jet age.”
Director of Future Combat Air Richard Berthon said, “Project Mosquito is a vital element of our approach to Future Combat Air, rapidly bringing to life design, build and test skills for next-generation combat air capabilities.”
The project marks another step towards warfare strategies around the world that involve greater numbers of autonomous platforms in the air, on land, and at sea.
Autonomous jets, tanks, helicopters, and submarines not only eliminate the risk to human life but are also potentially cheaper and simpler to make. With no flesh and blood to protect, they need less armour, less air, less space, and have fewer design constraints.
Of course, that same money and development could be ploughed into the large multi-talented robust machines of war—such as aircraft carriers or stealth bombers—that have typically characterised next-generation military tech development.
However, there’s growing interest among military strategists in a new concept known as “distributed warfare.”
Distributed warfare means that instead of a few all-singing all-dancing systems that can be easily tracked and targeted, the firepower and other military capabilities are spread through numerous cheaper platforms.
The theory is that it makes it harder to find and target any Achilles heels and to deliver a knockout blow.
In addition, it could potentially wrong-foot adversaries such as Russia and China, which have built up their war machines to target current platforms.
The unmanned wingman concept also highlights another growing theme of military modernization: integration of manned and unmanned platforms through the use of artificial intelligence. The approach has already been tested in principle by the U.S. military, which has adopted regular fighter jets for autonomy through fly-by-wire systems.
The U.S. Airforce last summer announced that four prototypes were competing to be its unmanned wingman.
Australia has also been investing heavily in the unmanned wingman concept, adopting it as its first nationally developed military aircraft for decades.