General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) has released a statement on the cancellation of Project Air 7003, under which Australia planned to acquire 12 MQ-9B UCAV.
The cancellation comes after the first flight of MQ-28A Ghost Bat, a UAV with similar capability.
MQ-28A Ghost Bat
As part of the ATS (Airpower Teaming System) program, the Australian division of Boeing (Boeing Australia) is developing a robotic guided aircraft or the Loyal Wingman. In the Australian Air Force, the drone will serve under the name MQ-28A Ghost Bat.
“The choice of the name Ghost Bat, a native Australian mammal [Megaderma Australian] known for creating packs for tracking and hunting, reflects the unique characteristics of aircraft sensors and its intelligence, tracking and reconnaissance capabilities, is a good name for this pioneering ability,” said Glen. Ferguson, head of the ATS program, this month.
MQ-28A belongs to the newly emerging category of jet drones controlled by onboard systems with elements of artificial intelligence (or machine learning). The MQ-28A was created for the Australian Air Force’s Loyal Wingman program.
Boeing Australia is developing the drone under the ATS program and will also offer it to foreign customers under this name.
The task of Ghost Bat (or other robotic wingmen ) is to replace or strengthen the work of human wingmen, i.e. pilots who support the leading aircraft in the second aircraft. The task of the wingmen in a two-member formation (leading and guided aircraft) is to increase situational awareness, firepower and protect the leading aircraft.
The advantage of robotic wingmen is, of course, the absence of a pilot. Pilot training takes years and costs millions of dollars. Fallen pilots are difficult to replace. Robotic wingmen, on the other hand, can be deployed to the most dangerous operations without fear or even sacrificed for “higher goals”.
Above all, the MQ-28A will ensure better situational awareness of the formation, will search for the enemy and will serve as a deceptive target – if the enemy MQ-28A targets the radar or fires at it, it will reveal its position. The MQ-28A is therefore developed as a so-called disposable aircraft – it is cheap, easy to manufacture and easy to replace.
In addition, more robotic wingmen can be deployed to one manned aircraft. More wingmen mean better situational awareness and more deceptive targets for the opponent. There are a number of possibilities for deployment and use. Deployment models and tactics will undoubtedly evolve with operations and experience.
Robotic wingmen are a promising and affordable way to expand the number of air combat platforms. The interest of the Australian Air Force is estimated in dozens, later hundreds of drones MQ-28A Ghost Bat.
“As air warfare becomes more complex and sophisticated, remote-controlled aircraft and other unmanned platforms are becoming increasingly important tools for modern armies,” commented Australian Defense Secretary Peter Dutton on the capabilities of the MQ-28A. “This new ability allows us to introduce more mass into the battlefield. The enemy will face not only our manned aircraft but also a large number of unmanned aircraft, such as the MQ-28A Ghost Bat.”
The MQ-28A Ghost Bat is a relatively small aircraft with a length of 11.7 meters and a wingspan of 7.3 meters. Indian LCA Tejas, which is one of the smallest fourth-generation fighters in the world, has a length of 14.60 m meters and a wingspan of 8.50 m meters. The empty weight of the MQ-28A is estimated at less than three tons.
The key advantage of the MQ-28A is the flight distance of 3,700 kilometres (double the range of MQ-9B), which is a crucial capability for Australian needs. The aircraft is subsonic, but planes can reach supersonic speeds during a dive.
The wings are a single part and are removable. The drone can thus be disassembled and transported in a classic shipping container with a length of 40 feet (12.2 meters). The C-17 transport aircraft can then probably transport up to four MQ-28A drones.
According to Boeing, the engine is the VLJ (Very Light Jet) category designed for very light passenger aircraft. The Pratt & Whitney Canada PW600 (7.2 kN thrust) and the Williams FJ33 (6.7 kN) meet this requirement. Military versions may have a greater pull price in less time between overhauls.
The main feature of the ATS is the replaceable 2.6 meters long nasal part. The exchangeable front part with a volume of 1.5 m3 can hide various useful devices – radars (and more types), electro-optical sensors, electronic warfare systems, communication systems, or even directional laser jammers or warheads.
In front of the main landing gear is space for two gun shafts 1.8 meters long—a small length for missiles like Sidewinder, AMRAAM or Paveway, a benefit with MQ-9B. But it is good for two GBU-53 / B StormBreaker bombs.
Two prototypes have already performed flight tests. In total, the Australian Air Force for air tests of six prototypes. As per estimates, the tests will end sometime around 2025, after which series production will begin.