The proposed unmanned loyal wingman platform being developed for the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) could be similar in size to the future manned Tempest fighter, with the first UK demonstration flight of the drone intended to take place in 2023.
In January this year the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) awarded a £30m (US$41.5m) contract to Spirit Aerosystems to lead the Mosquito project through the next phase, with the ambition to develop the RAF’s LANCA (Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft) concept ahead of a full-scale vehicle flight-test programme expected by the end of 2023.
At the time the MOD said that the uncrewed combat aircraft would be designed to fly at high-speed alongside fighter jets, armed with missiles, surveillance, and electronic warfare systems.
The Mosquito programme, which also includes Northrop Grumman UK, will mature the design and manufacture a technology demonstrator to generate evidence for a follow-on LANCA programme. If successful, this could lead to a capability being deployed alongside the Typhoon and F-35 Lightning jets by the end of the decade.
Detailing the status of a range of current and future aircraft, ACM Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff, revealed the Tempest and Mosquito loyal wingman models displayed at the DSEI 2021 exhibition were “representative” and “in scale”, adding that the programme continued “at pace”.
The UK’s Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS), which will comprise of the Tempest fighter and loyal wingman systems, was given an additional £1.5bn research investment in November 2020. The LANCA programme itself originated in 2015 in Dstl to help develop understanding of new combat air technologies expected to influence the future battlespace, and currently run by the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office.
Elsewhere, Wigston said that the performance of a RAF C-130 Hercules in the recent Kabul airlift demonstrated “why the aircraft had been our workhorse for over 50 years”.
The fleet was one of the main casualties in the recent Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper, with all 14 UK C-130J/C-130J-30 tactical transport aircraft due to be removed from service by 2023.
Wigston added that the A400M aircraft, which also participated in the airlift, would be “ready to take the load” from 2023 and that its performance in Operating Tipping, the operational name of the UK’s airlift efforts in Afghanistan, had “reinforced my confidence” in the decision to axe the C-130 platform.
The 22-strong A400M fleet, also known as Atlas, will then be the UK’s only transport aircraft able to operate by unprepared runways, a key capability in enabling distributed operations and removing the risks associated with fixed military aviation hubs.
In other developments, it was revealed that the RAF No 13 Sqn will become the second squadron planned to operate the future MQ-9B Protector RG1 aircraft, which is derived from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ SkyGuardian platform, joining the already announced No 31 Sqn.
In July this year it was announced that the UK agreed a £195m deal for a further 13 Protector remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS), with a total of 16 now on order. The Protector will replace the current MQ-9A Reaper UAVs in service from 2024.
Regarding the integration of the Protector into the fleet, Wigston said that “if we run [Protector] as (the MQ-9A Reaper], we would have failed to capitalise”, referring to the different capabilities and expected tactics, techniques and procedures between the Reaper and Protector platforms.
By Richard Thomas