Air Force Announces Contracts for Skyborg Autonomous ‘Wingman’

July 24, 2020 Updated: August 3, 2020

The U.S. Air Force has announced four prototype jets will compete for its vision of an unmanned autonomous fighter that can team up with a human-piloted lead aircraft.

The Skyborg project, sometimes called the “unmanned wingman” is one of the key Air Force modernization programs. The Air Force announced on July 22 that it had put aside $400 million for four companies—Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Kratos, and General Atomics—to compete for the project.

Boeing’s prototype—known as the Loyal Wingman—is also supported by the Air Force in Australia, where it’s being developed and built.

Kratos’s XQ-58A Valkyrie already has recorded some test flight miles.

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The XQ-58A Valkyrie is pictured during a second test flight on June 11, 2019. (1st Lt Randolph Abaya, 586 Flight Test Squadron.)

Skyborg marks another step toward warfare strategies 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 armor, less air, less space, and have fewer design constraints.

Skyborg is specifically required to be “attritable,” i.e., cheap and replaceable enough to be destroyed in battle.

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Boeing’s Loyal Wingman drone is unveiled on May 5, 2020. (Boeing)

The Air Force says that the prototypes will help establish a “best of breed” autonomous system that can adapt, orient, and make decisions at machine speed.

That system would be the common AI framework of a family of Skyborg drones, each suited to different mission sets.

“Because autonomous systems can support missions that are too strenuous or dangerous for manned crews, Skyborg can increase capability significantly and be a force multiplier for the Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, who, along with Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), leads the Skyborg program.

“We have the opportunity to transform our warfighting capabilities and change the way we fight and the way we employ air power.”

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 adoption of regular fighter jets for autonomy through fly-by-wire systems.

On Jan. 5, the Navy simultaneously flew two autonomously piloted carrier jets, using a third human-piloted jet as a mission controller.

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A U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler assigned to the USS Carl Vinson on May 3, 2017, over the western Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Linzmeier)

The EA-18G Growler jets used in the test are electronic-warfare aircraft—modified versions of the F-18. Over the course of four flights, 21 demonstration missions were completed, according to Boeing.

With China now spending more than a dozen times more on defense than it did 20 years ago, the U.S. military is revamping for a renewed “great power competition” with Russia and China, as demanded by the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

Both Russia and China have developed extensive integrated anti-aircraft systems and long-range missile shields to try to neuter once-indomitable U.S. aircraft carriers and jets.

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