Boeing has unveiled an unmanned, fighter-like jet developed in Australia and designed to fly alongside crewed aircraft in combat for a fraction of the cost.
The US manufacturer hopes to sell the multi-role aircraft – which is 11.6 metres long and has a 3,704km range – around the world.
The prototype is Australia’s first domestically developed combat aircraft since the second world war and Boeing’s biggest investment in unmanned systems outside the United States, although the company did not say the amount.
Australia is investing A$40m in the prototype program due to its “enormous capability for exports”, the defence minister, Christopher Pyne, said at the Australian international airshow at Avalon, Victoria, on Wednesday.
Defence contractors are investing increasingly in autonomous technology as defence forces around the world look for a cheaper and safer way to maximise their resources.
Boeing rivals such as Lockheed Martin Corp and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions Inc are investing in similar aircraft.
Four to six of the new aircraft, called the Boeing airpower teaming system, can fly alongside a F/A-18E/F super hornet, said Shane Arnott, the director of Boeing’s research and prototype arm, Phantom Works International.
“To bring that extra component and the advantage of unmanned capability, you can accept a higher level of risk,” he said. “It is better for one of these to take a hit than for a manned platform.”
The Mitchell institute for aerospace studies in the US said last year that the US air force should look at pairing crewed and uncrewed aircraft to expand its fleet and complement a limited number of “exquisite, expensive, but highly potent fifth-generation aircraft” such as the F-35.
“Human performance factors are a major driver behind current aerial combat practices,” its policy paper said. “Humans can only pull a certain number of Gs, fly for a certain number of hours, or process a certain amount of information at a given time.”
As well as performing like a fighter jet, other roles for the Boeing system include electronic warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance alongside aircraft such as the P-8 Poseidon and E-7 Wedgetail, said Kristin Robertson, the vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems.
“It is operationally very flexible, modular, multi-mission,” she said. “It is a very disruptive price point. Fighter-like capability at a fraction of the cost.”
Its first flight is expected in 2020, with Boeing and the Australian government producing a concept demonstrator to pave the way for full production.
“I would say we are some years away from exports,” said Pyne. “We are probably years away from it being in operation here in Australia.
“It is designed to be a cheaper platform, a shield if you like, around the more expensive platforms, to protect our servicemen and women who might be on a Poseidon or a Wedgetail or a F-35A.”
Australia is home to Boeing’s largest footprint outside the US and has vast airspace with relatively low traffic for flight testing.
The new system will be manufactured in Australia, but production lines could be set up in other countries depending on sales, Arnott said.
The US, which has the world’s biggest military budget, would be among the natural customers.
The US air force 2030 project foresees the Lockheed Martin F-35A joint strike fighter working with stealthy combat drones, called the “Loyal Wingman” concept, said Derrick Maple, the principal analyst for unmanned systems at IHS Markit.
“The US has more specific plans for the wingman concept, but western Europe will likely develop their requirements in parallel, to abate the capabilities of China and [Russia] and other potential threats.”