Don't mean to alarm you, but Boeing has built an unmanned fighter jet called 'Loyal Wingman'

Unarmed, but let's be real – it's only a matter of time, isn't it?

RoTM Boeing has built an autonomous military aeroplane that flies in formation with a manned fighter jet to ward off electronic warfare attacks. Reports say the craft could be modified to carry and use its own weapons.

The electronic warfare drone was built for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) by the American aerospace conglomerate and is roughly the size of a traditional military fast jet, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"Its primary purpose would be to conduct electronic warfare and reconnaissance missions, particularly in environments where it is considered risky to send manned aircraft," reported the Aussie state broadcaster.

Car mag The Drive, which has a mil-tech subsection, followed up the ABC's scoop with some all-important detail, revealing that the UAV:

  • Can fly with or without a manned partner
  • Has a range of roughly 2,000 miles (about 3,220km)
  • Is 38 feet (11.5m) long and uses a bizjet-class engine
  • Modular design for "snap-in" payloads and rapid reconfiguration capability
  • Initial configuration will be sensor/intelligence and electronic warfare focused
  • Controlled via ground station, other aircraft, and has some level of autonomy that can scale for the mission
  • Will team with other Boeing-made jets EA-18G, F/A-18E/F, E-7 Wedgetail and P-8 Poseidon

Of the aircraft designations at the end of that list, the -18s are Hornet fighter jets, as flown by the US, Canada and Australia among others, while the Wedgetail and Poseidon are Boeing 737s modified to carry military radars instead of passengers. The UK RAF is buying a small number of Poseidons, but not the Loyal Wingman drones.

Developing an unmanned military aeroplane that can fly along with a manned fighter jet is a big step forward for the aerospace industry – and one that will cause unease among those worried about robot war machines. For now, the Loyal Wingman is relatively low key: it carries jamming equipment and sensors rather than missiles, but the ability to hang armaments off the thing won't be far from anyone's mind.

One immediate scenario that suggests itself to your correspondent is fitting a Loyal Wingman with anti-radiation missiles. Fly such a drone in front of your manned jets: if they detect a hostile radar within range, they could be set up to automatically launch a missile that homes in on the radar's own emissions. In situations like the erupting border war between India and Pakistan, anti-radiation missiles are very useful for "blinding" an enemy's own defensive radars.

The future has arrived, and in a few short years it could be exactly what we feared. ®

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