For decades, warplanners have envisioned skies where drones would fly side-by-side with manned warplanes, augmenting existing capabilities of latter aircraft types. Boeing, with assistance from the Australian government and Australian local industry, has gone on to unveil the "Airpower Teaming System" (ATS), a modular Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) intended to provide a budget-concious unmanned solution to American and Australian allies. The air vehicle is to work in conjunction with existing, current-generation Boeing products like the "Super Hornet" multirole naval fighter and the newer P-8 "Poseidon" maritime patroller.
The drone's development is being headed by Boeing's own Phantom Works International division and was debuted at the Australian Avalon Air Show in February of 2019. A technology demonstrator is planned next under the "Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program" (LWADP) and the end-goal is to produce an air vehicle capable of completely autonomous direction under Artificial Intelligence (AI) operating with manned aircraft or independently as needed.
The product is made possible through funds provided, in part, by the Australian government (nearly $30 million USD over the course of four years) with direct support from the Royal Australia Air Force (RAAF) with an eye towards local Australian production of the completed, production-quality air system (this to involve names like BAe Systems Australia). Foreign involvement in the product also eases availability and procurement for interested foreign parties as is the case with other foreign Boeing projects like the "Wedgetail" program (now flying with South Korea and Turkey). Additionally, the program helps to evolve a growing and maturing local Australian defense industry to meet future requirements as well as self-sustainment goals.
The finalized ATS design will carry an existing lightweight turbofan engine currently of unknown make, model, and output. It is estimated with a range equal to 2,300 miles (2,000 nautical miles), able to operate over land and water with equal effectiveness. The current appearance of the aircraft (largely engineered in Australia) showcases an extended nose section, side-mounted intakes aspirating the sole engine installation, shoulder-mounted wing mainplanes, and a "V-style" tail unit (no horizontal tailplanes are featured). The mainplanes have an unbroken, sweptback leading edge and compound trailing edge that is both swept forward (inboard panel) and sweptback (outboard panel). "Chining" is used about the edges of the fuselage to promote inherent "stealthiness" and a traditional tricycle undercarriage (retractable) is featured for ground-running. As currently drawn up, the air vehicle has an overall length of 38 feet though other dimensions remain under wraps.
Internally, the mission payload of the drone will encompass various Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR) fits through a modular systems approach - making for quick exchanges of equipment as needed per sortie. Beyond this, the ATS will have an Electronic Warfare (EW) capability to further enhance its over-battlefield value.
If the ATS program comes to fruition, it will usher in a new era of unmanned warfare, the next logical step in achieving a battlefield that involves AI and drone aircraft fighting side-by-side with their human overlords. Eventually, the battlefield may very well become dominated by unmanned vehicles in whole - leaving humans completely out of the equation.