Boeing Co on Wednesday 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 38 feet long (11.6 metres) and has a 2,000 nautical mile (3,704 kilometre) range, to customers around the world, modifying it as requested.
The prototype is Australia's first domestically developed combat aircraft since World War II and Boeing's biggest investment in unmanned systems outside the United States, although the company declined to specify the dollar amount.
The Australian government is investing A$40 million ($28.75 million) in the prototype programme due to its “enormous capability for exports,” Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne told reporters at the Australian International Airshow.
Defence contractors are investing increasingly in autonomous technology as militaries around the world look for a cheaper and safer way to maximise their resources.
Boeing rivals like Lockheed Martin Corp and Kratos Defence and Security Solutions Inc are also investing in such 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, director of Boeing 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 United States said last year that the US Air Force should explore pairing crewed and uncrewed aircraft to expand its fleet and complement a limited number of “exquisite, expensive, but highly potent fifth-generation aircraft” like the F-35.
“Human performance factors are a major driver behind current aerial combat practices,” the policy paper said. “Humans can only pull a certain number of G's, fly for a certain number of hours, or process a certain amount of information at a given time.”
In addition to performing like a fighter jet, other roles for the Boeing system include electronic warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance alongside aircraft like the P-8 Poseidon and E-7 Wedgetail, said Kristin Robertson, 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.”
Robertson declined to comment on the cost, saying that it would depend on the configuration chosen by individual customers.