Boeing unveils the first new Australian-designed and developed combat aircraft in decades
By Andrew McLaughlin
Defence Minister Christopher Pyne has unveiled the first high performance military aircraft to be designed and developed in Australia in more than six decades at the 2019 Avalon Airshow.
The Airpower Teaming System (ATS), designed and developed by Boeing Phantom Works’ Australian team for inclusion in Boeing Autonomous Systems portfolio, is a fighter-sized unmanned system designed to operate in conjunction with manned systems as a ‘loyal wingman’.
A full-scale ATS air vehicle was unveiled at a February 27 event at Avalon attended by senior RAAF personnel, Boeing executives, and defence media. The development of the system is primarily being funded by Boeing, but with a $40 million injection from Air Force Minor Program DEF 6014 Phase 1, for which Boeing will deliver three air vehicles and associated systems.
“The partnership will produce a concept demonstrator of a low cost unmanned ‘Loyal Wingman’ aircraft, capable of operating in concert with Air Force’s fifth generation air combat capability,” Minister Pyne said in a statement.
“There is significant value investing in innovative, future leaning initiatives like this, particularly in the early conceptual stages where Defence can explore concepts and define the role such capabilities can play in our national security framework.”
Not yet allocated a designation, the ATS is designed to augment sensor, electronic warfare, or other payloads of manned systems including combat aircraft or commercial derivatives such as the P-8A Poseidon or E-7A Wedgetail, to provide critical mass against the growing threat posed by regional near-peer competitors. It will be very much an extension of the manned system it will operate with.
The ATS air vehicle will operate as an element of a combat ‘package’, and possibly take on some of the higher risk elements of a mission such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) tasking in denied or contested airspace.
“The Boeing Airpower Teaming System will provide a disruptive advantage for allied forces’ manned/unmanned missions,” vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems, Kristin Robertson said.
“With its ability to reconfigure quickly and perform different types of missions in tandem with other aircraft, our newest addition to Boeing’s portfolio will truly be a force multiplier as it protects and projects air power.”
The ATS air vehicle itself is described as a “clean sheet” design, being between a BAE Hawk and a classic Hornet in size. Boeing says the ATS air vehicle measures 38ft long (11.7m) and will be able to fly more than 2,000 nautical miles.
The air vehicle features a wide oval-shaped fuselage with pinched chines running almost the length of each side, a trapezoid shaped forward fuselage, and a flattened rear fuselage with a flat exhaust in between twin canted vertical stabilisers. The mid-high-set wing has a moderate aspect ratio with a mild sweep of about 20 degrees, a cranked trailing edge, and is blended into the fuselage chines. The leading and trailing edges of the wing appear to be aligned with those of the canted stabilisers.
The two engine intakes are located on the lower half of the forward fuselage, and on the aircraft underside is a large payload bay that can carry a sensor or EW payload pallet.
The overall design appears to place a strong emphasis on advanced signature management which will be a key requirement in order to be to operate in conjunction with the F-35, with the canted stabilisers, fuselage chines, aligned edges, and composite structure all contributing to its low-observability.
But cost will also be a key driver of the ATS program, so the use of the expensive composite structures and low-observable shaping and materials will need to be offset by the substantial use of commercial and military-off-the-shelf (COTS/MOTS) components.
“Affordability is a key driver,” Boeing’s Director of Phantom Works International, Shane Arnott told ADBR. “It’s got an interesting design, but there’s certainly some real smarts in how we’ve achieved performance at a pretty incredible price point which will become evident over time.
Boeing has a long heritage in this space. In that context of having decades in the unmanned space, if all progresses to plan this could be a future franchise program for us.
“It’s a combination of those things when you want to hit a particular affordability range,” he added. “You can’t just build a nice prototype that’s going to fly a couple of times. You need to be proving factory and production techniques as well – that’s a big part of this.”
Arnott says the air vehicle could be in production by the mid-2020s. “This is all about how to iterate a lot quicker based on a known problem instead of waiting for the next exotic system that takes however long to mature. Our customers – with Boeing’s help – need to do some things now in order to stay competitive in that future fight.”
The Loyal Wingman concept has gained greater awareness and development backing in recent years, especially following the awarding by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) of a proof-of-concept contract to Kratos Unmanned Systems Division (KUSD) for the Low-Cost Attritable Strike Unmanned Aerial System Demonstration (LCASD) system in 2016.
Kratos proposed a development of an air vehicle derived from its high-performance target drone catalogue, with its 20ft long UTAP-22 Mako and 30ft long XQ-222 Valkyrie proposals. The LCASD requirement sought multiple air vehicle variants with extreme agility that could manoeuvre at low altitude, and fly Defensive and Offensive Counter Air (DCA/OCA), and Suppression or Destruction of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD/DEAD) missions.
Other goals were for a unit price of less than US$3m (A$4.1m), a 1,500nm combat radius, a Mach 0.9 dash speed, an internal weapons capacity of at least two 250lb small diameter bombs, and a high amount of commercial and military off-the-shelf (COTS/MOTS) components and manufacturing processes.
Other publicly-available Loyal Wingman concepts included using QF-16s, themselves retired manned F-16A-D fighters converted by Boeing, while concepts for higher performance low-observable designs have also been proposed.
Boeing has a strong legacy in high-performance unmanned systems, not least through the QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target (FSAT) conversion program which will provide up to 127 optionally-manned QF-16s to the US DoD for high-performance target, flight test and other support work.
Most recently, Boeing was awarded a contract for the development of the US Navy’s MQ-25, an unmanned aerial refueller. MQ-25 is a somewhat watered-down version of the original US Navy Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program which sought to develop an unmanned carrier-borne combat aircraft.
In 2016 the program’s strike and combat requirements were dropped, with the emphasis instead switching to air-to-air refuelling as the primary mission, with secondary ‘light’ intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and communications relay capabilities. The initial UCLASS requirement for a low-observable platform was also dropped.
In August 2018 Boeing was awarded a US$805m (A$1.1bn) contract to “provide the design, development, fabrication, test, verification, certification, delivery, and support of four MQ-25A unmanned air vehicles, including integration into the carrier air wing to provide an initial operational capability to the Navy”.
Although Boeing won’t discuss the lineage of many of its unmanned programs, its MQ-25 reportedly leverages many of the ‘smart’ unmanned elements developed for and flown aboard the company’s X-45A program. Two X-45As flew a test program from Edwards AFB from 2002 to 2006, and the program culminated in live weapons tests and demonstrated the ability for the two aircraft to work as a team to determine which one held optimum position, weapons and fuel states to attack pop-up threats.
The X-45A spawned several follow-on developments, including the X-45B/C which was a larger flying wing design, the X-45N concept which was proposed for the UCAS-D program, and the company-funded ‘Project Reblue’ Phantom Ray, a fighter-sized unmanned aircraft system, which first flew in 2011 at Edwards AFB, and about which little has been heard since.
Some of the manufacturing concepts and flight control laws for the X-45 program were reportedly developed by the manned YF-118G Bird of Prey program which conducted 40 flights between 1996 and 1999 from the secret Area 51 flight test facility in Nevada. The exotic-looking Bird of Prey explored the development of affordable low-observable shaping and composite manufacturing techniques.
Phantom Works had another major program win in 2018 with the choice of Boeing’s design for the USAF’s massive T-X requirement to build nearly 400 advanced trainers to replace the Northrop T-38.
With all of the above-mentioned programs having their gestation in Boeing’s Phantom Works division, it’s likely DNA from some or all of them has been passed down to the ATS.
“Phantom Works is the advanced development part of Boeing Defense, Space and Security,” Arnott explained. “A couple of things that graduated recently – the T-X aircraft came from Phantom Works and the MQ-25 came from Phantom Works. These are a good example of us building anything that’s net new, if you will.
“In the unmanned space, we’re developing something like ATS with the Autonomous Systems business, which is where programs like MQ-25, QF-16, Echo Voyager, Integrator and ScanEagle reside.”
The evolution of ATS has been empowered by the rapid air combat and defensive systems capability developments seen in recent years from potential adversaries that have been able to ‘get inside’ the West’s protracted development cycles.
“We’re always looking to the future, scanning for threats and opportunities and looking at what are going to be the long poles in the tent for our customers,” Arnott explained. “In the not too distant future there’s going to be a very challenging future battlespace that will be particularly profound as it presents in the air and maritime domain.
“And that challenge will present itself in a quality and a quantity that’s going to be a problem. At the end of the day, warfare’s still fundamentally about mass, and then being able to have that mass at the right levels of capability or readiness, that is a problem for our customers.”
The RAAF has also been watching the development of the future battlespace, and five years ago launched Plan Jericho to transform and position the RAAF to best take advantage of new and advanced technologies, as well as the training and culture required to successfully operate them.
Many of these technologies include the ‘5th generation’ capabilities brought about by the Lockheed Martin F-35A, but also the advanced ISR and communications capabilities of systems such as the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail and P-8A Poseidon.
Other advanced systems include the Vigilare command and control system, the electronic warfare capabilities of the EA-18G Growler and forthcoming Gulfstream/L-3 MC-55A, and even the advanced communications systems being integrated with the RAAF’s KC-30A, C-17A and C-130J air mobility fleet.
Jericho also aims to successfully integrate the RAAF’s new unmanned capabilities with the wider ADF. The early 2020s will see the introduction of the MQ-4C Triton, the Project AIR 7003 Predator-B/Reaper, and possibly, an operational development of Boeing’s ATS.
In short, Jericho plans to ensure that, even though all of these manned and unmanned systems on their own are actual or potential world-beating technologies, the overall capability offered by the RAAF and the wider ADF will be greater than the sum of its parts.
One element of that transformation effort is the Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program, an effort to explore innovation and advances around the Loyal Wingman concept, and it is this program which Boeing has pitched the ATS at and has won a co-investment development contract with the RAAF through a minor program.
“Boeing is part of this innovation development program but it’s also contributing to a new product launch for us, the Boeing Airpower Teaming System,” Arnott explained. “To address the mass challenge, we’ve created this teaming system that sometimes gets called a Loyal Wingman.
“It’s designed to fly alongside as a team with existing manned platforms. So everything from fighters to commercial derivatives like E-7 and P-8, tankers et cetera, the whole idea is to match that mass through affordable and semi-attritable unmanned systems that enables the commander to accept an increased risk over the manned fighters.
“In the Air Force traditionally you’re operating your aircraft which you’re physically sitting in,” he added. “But with this concept, you’ve got some unmanned teammates flying alongside that are a natural extension of your system. It’s always tethered.
“There shouldn’t be a situation where we need a new radio on a manned aircraft to control the ATS, and it shouldn’t slow down the strike package. It shouldn’t have special fuel or equipment, through the support system to the mission planning to the interoperability technologies. There is a baseline requirement that it will work out of the box.”
Arnott says the RAAF’s Jericho team was seeing many of the regional threat developments as the company had modelled and simulated in its own labs, and was drawing some of the same conclusions about how best to counter them. “We briefed them and asked, ‘Have you seen the same sort of issues we’re seeing?’. And everyone is seeing the same issues.
“So in scanning the threats and opportunities to the market, and knowing what that looks like, knowing what a good price point is to make it attritable, and to be able to be bought in sufficient numbers that you can achieve a certain mass in order to overmatch that threat. That’s really how it all started – we saw alignment with the RAAF and Minister’s office, and that got us to here.”
Made in Australia
The decision to develop the ATS in Australia was not taken lightly, and represents the first full-scale Australian-designed high-performance aircraft development program since the Jindivik drone in the 1950s and 60s.
“What’s also significant, is this is the first time that Boeing has designed and developed an aircraft, an unmanned aircraft outside the United States in our 100-year history,” Arnott said. “And we’ve done it here in Australia, so that’s a pretty big deal.
“The reasons we’re doing it here in Australia are threefold,” he added. “First, there has been a really positive change of appetite here, starting at the government level with innovation being part of the agenda for the first time in a long time, and a whole heap of initiatives flowing from that. And those initiatives are putting up the flag to companies like Boeing to say that Australia has the intent to move from a buyer to a creator.
“The new defence export policy and the Minister of Defence in particular is a huge champion of that, and we recognise him for that – he was certainly a significant contributor to the contract that we’ve got. And you see that appetite being reflected in the ADF, with the RAAF stating they want to be the world’s first 5th gen air force which is a big ambition. With transformation programs like Jericho, this program becomes a walking of that talk.”
Arnott said the second reason ATS is being developed in Australia is a geographical one. “Australia has natural advantages – it’s a big country with low population density which gives us a whole heap of wide-open spaces, particularly in the air and sea, for us to ‘try, fly, sail, fail’ so to speak, and get to success faster.
“So we see the airspace regulator here is one of the most progressive in the world,” he added. “We see that as a determinate, and believe we’re going to be able to go faster here than we would perhaps in some other places in trying out some of these very challenging concepts to realise the capability.”
The third reason is related to Australia having Boeing’s largest workforce outside of the US. Many of Boeing’s legacy companies such as Hawker de Havilland and the Government Aircraft Factories (GAF), both of which have a robust heritage in full-scale aircraft and component production, are now part of Boeing Aerostructures Australia (BAA). BAA now builds high tech composite structures for various Boeing commercial airplane programs, while a large proportion of the RAAF’s fixed wing aircraft have been acquired from Boeing and are supported by a large Boeing workforce.
“This is a global product development, we just happen to be doing it in Australia for a lot of the reasons I’ve just stated,” Arnott said. “And as we were developing it, the Minister had been saying, ‘Hey, we want that from a capabilities standpoint in the country’. The timing was great, and we said, ‘Ok, here’s something that Boeing is looking to do that would fit in with these polices and initiatives that you’ve got’. And it progressedfrom there.”
One of Arnott’s key responsibilities is to create capability beyond Boeing’s US borders. “So I look after our biggest teams here in Australia, but I’ve also got folks in the UK, Saudi Arabia, Korea and India as well,” he said.
“A big part of what our mission here is to do what the big Phantom Works does in the US which is to grow new products and services,” he added. “So there are a few areas that we focus on. Autonomy is a big one, mission systems is another one. And in Australia, that’s a focus because of Wedgetail and Vigilare and AIR 6500 coming up.”
While ATS wasn’t an original Australian idea, it was a project Boeing identified as being the right scale and requiring the development expertise already resident in Boeing Defence Australia (BDA) and the local Phantom Works team to invest in.
“There’s a lot of technology and a lot of capability at BDA,” said Arnott. “And we have the mission system capability in Brisbane [with BDA]. So we were able to convince people that this is something that we can do. I can’t understate the significance that this is the first time that Boeing has done a clean sheet aircraft design outside the US…it’s a massive deal!
“That global piece is a big, big shift for us,” he added. “From going from a model where we are primarily an American builder and exporter, and being incredibly successful with that, to now truly becoming a global company. We’re making that shift towards national defence products. We’re becoming a bit more ambitious as a nation, but we’re also being mindful of what’s achievable as well.”
Apart from Boeing’s long history of developing unmanned systems in the US, the path to ATS has also been paved by the work Boeing Defence Australia and more recently the Phantom Works team has been doing in Australia with smaller unmanned systems.
Through its relationships with the Queensland Government and various research programs with tertiary educational institutions such as RMIT, the company has conducted numerous tests and demonstrations of small unmanned systems. This includes the successful demonstration of several air vehicles to fly safely in formation and to deconflict with other aircraft and formations using artificial intelligence (AI).
“There are two general types of AI,” Arnott explained. “There’s deterministic AI which is where the knowledge is given, and then there’s emergent technologies like machine learning, where it learns as it goes. When it comes to our making sure an air vehicle is safe, you don’t want to start with emergent behaviour, but there are ways that you can take that emergent behaviour and use it further upstream in the simulation.
“We use the machine learning and other emergent techniques to teach our deterministic behaviours which then get uploaded onto the vehicles,” he added. “The deterministic behaviours are good because you know what the air vehicles are going to do under certain conditions. In the future when there is more faith in these systems we may look at some of that technology, but for now we do it in simulations where we can input different situations and emergency events across threat responses, and test the deterministic behaviours against that.”
Boeing spends more than US$3bn a year on R&D, a large proportion of which goes towards autonomous systems and AI across the commercial and defence sectors.
“We are seeing autonomy threading through everything we do – commercial, defence, the whole lot. And the interesting thing with the air systems is, none of these systems exist totally just within a military construct, they’ve still got to transit commercial air space of some description.
“There’s no situation where we go, ‘oh we’re just going to do this under a military authority’, which is a mistake made by some other systems. We need to be talking both to the civilian regulator and the defense regulator for all of these.”
There are already an unspecified number of ATS prototypes planned, but if development progresses, the location for production is yet to be determined. “We certainly design the products for them to support the interests of various countries,” said Arnott. “You know, everyone has a sovereignty agenda, and we’ve certainly had that in mind as part of product development strategy.”
Boeing has a team of more than 100 working on ATS in Australia, including an Australian industry team with 16 Australian suppliers and partners and growing. These include BAE Systems Australia, Ferra Engineering, Ruag Australia Pty Ltd, Micro Electronic Technologies Pty Ltd, AME Systems, Allied Data Systems, and research organisations such as DST Group.
BAE Systems has recent unmanned systems experience with its Taranis UCAS and its predecessor, the Corax, and on numerous manned combat aircraft programs, while BAE and Boeing already work together on programs like Nulka and ESSM.
“There’s obviously a lot of common DNA with the folks at BAE,” Arnott said. “They did a lot of work around Taranis and Corax, and they actually grew a lot of Australian technology. So offshoots of that and advances from those have been used on this program.
“So we are absolutely getting some of the best folks in industry together for ATS,” he added. “We’re certainly bringing the best of what Australia has to offer together in order to be world competitors. We’ve used everything that we can from Australian sources, and the things we can’t source here, we’ve been getting that from global sources.”
“Autonomy and these sorts of technologies is an area that, for a nation like ours, I think really is an area that Australia could lean into and have some success. The Boeing Company certainly believes that, and we certainly wouldn’t be making this investment otherwise. It’s super exciting, and hopefully is showing folks a different way of thinking.”
First flight of a prototype ATS is scheduled for some time in 2020. While Boeing wouldn’t reveal what location this would take place at, with RAAF minor project backing and access to Defence facilities, it’s likely the airspace around Woomera in South Australia – where BAE Systems tested their Taranis prototype in 2013 and 2014 – will see some increased activity.