Fighter pilots to soon have drone wingmen

Japan drone wingmen unmanned aircraft

The USA’s heavy use of drone strikes serves as more evidence of the technology’s increased involvement in conflicts around the world. But unmanned aircraft are set to be more than just a standalone solution for “surgical” strikes. At least if the USA and Japan’s new programmes are anything to go by.

Both countries have announced drone wingmen to partner up with traditional manned aircraft. In other words, they’re preparing for a future where manned and unmanned aircraft operate side-by-side.

USA’s more conventional approach

The USA’s Loyal Wingman Initiative is expected to see last-generation unmanned F16 fighters paired up with the latest F35 fighter jets.

According to a Flight Global report earlier this year, deputy defence secretary Robert Work expects to see unmanned wingmen before a fleet of unmanned ground vehicles.

“You take an F16 and make it totally unmanned,” Work was quoted as saying. “The F16 is a fourth-generation fighter, and pair it with an F35, a fifth-generation battle network node, and have those two operating together.”

An unmanned F16 isn’t unprecedented either, as the US Air Force already operates unmanned QF16 variants as target drones.

Japan: A drone for every occasion

Japan’s military planners have revealed their own plans for “Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft” or companion drones.

Aviation Week spotted the technology roadmap for the programme, which is expected to kick off in earnest in the 2030s.

These drones differ from the USA’s effort by being dedicated to single tasks rather than being general wingmen.

These drone wingmen could draw fire from enemies, serve as early warning platforms and more

It appears that multiple drones would fly ahead of the manned military aircraft, with one being devoted to firing weapons, one diverting missiles away from the manned jet and another serving as a long-range sensor suite.

These unmanned aircraft would apparently be under control of the manned pilot, but would also be able to initiate moves of its own.

It’s all starting to sound like a plot out of Ace Combat

Featured image: Japanese Defense Ministry and Aviation Week



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