The U.S. military has for several years now been working on the concept of a “loyal wingman” wherein a manned jet controls nearby drones from the cockpit without needing to move data through a ground control station. This technology is now maturing quickly with the United States, particularly with drone programs such as the Valkyrie which has already taken off and flown in tandem with Air Force F-22s and F-35s, according to an Air Force report in December of last year.
“The rocket-launched Valkyrie successfully conducted a semi-autonomous flight alongside the F-22 and F-35 for the first time,” the Air Force report states.
The technical advance is quite significant, as it not only reduces latency in terms of data transmission but naturally massively streamlines command and control, such that fifth-generation fighters such as the F-22 or F-35 stealth fighters can control the flight path, mission scope and sensor payload of nearby drones to test enemy defenses, blanket areas with forward surveillance or even fire weapons when directed by humans. Perhaps F-35s could operate a small forward fleet of mini-drones to jam enemy radar, overwhelm sensors or network targeting data back to air and ground nodes.
Now, surprise, surprise, the Russian military is working on the same thing. While the Russian military is known to operate drones with an advanced technical sophistication, going as far back as Ukraine in 2014, more recent efforts are taking a sizable leap forward in terms of platform and technology advanced. The Russian Ministry of Defense is now working to network its S-70 Okhotnik-B drone with its emerging Su-57 Felon fifth-generation stealth fighter, according to a Russian publication called Izvestia.
Manned-Unmanned teaming, as it is called, could be identified as fundamental to the wave of the future when it comes to airwar operations, as it introduces new tactical possibilities for attack. Much of the prevailing consensus regarding what is likely to determine outcomes in future wars, especially should they involve great power conflict, could be described in terms of “sensor-to-shooter” timelines. Air-to-air rapid connectivity between drones and armed, supersonic stealth fighter jets, could enable attack aircraft to see, and destroy, enemy targets before they are seen themselves.
Interestingly, the Army was on the forefront of manned-unmanned teaming years ago when Apache attack helicopter crews were engineered with an ability to view live feeds from nearby drones in the cockpit and also control a drone’s sensor payload and flight path. This technology, which deployed to great effect in Afghanistan in recent years, reshaped helicopter attack tactics as Apache pilots were able to find, detect and track enemy targets before even taking off, due to being able to receive incoming drone video feeds.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.