CSIR proposes study into robotic wingman for SAAF


A robotic wingman, a type of unmanned aerial vehicle, could be well suited to South African Air Force (SAAF) requirements, says a senior a senior engineer from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the South African government’s technology think tank.

Kevin Jamison, a Principal Aeronautical and Systems Engineer at the CSIR outlined what he said was, at this stage, “a sketch of a proposal” on the opening day of the 2019 Aeronautical Society Annual Conference in Pretoria on Wednesday.

He would like to see a study of the robotic wingman concept ahead of a Gripen fighter upgrade. This option would be considerably less costly than an elaborate upgrade or buying new fighters as it would be a cost-effective solution to add to the long-range punch of the Gripens.

An increasing number of air forces are developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that could, in time, accompany manned fighter aircraft as robotic wingmen, often called loyal wingmen, on missions.

Earlier this year the US Air Force tested a jet powered robotic wingman, the XQ-58A. China is developing the “Sharp Sword” UAV; in India, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is developing India’s version; Australia is working with Boeing on its Loyal Wingman project, and the UK has the Light Weight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) project. France and Germany are jointly developing a system of Remote Carriers as part of the Future Combat System.

Under some concepts for a robotic wingman the UAV has surveillance sensors, a jamming capability, and carries a weapons payload. The UAV has a data link to fighter aircraft and a ground station. The robotic wingman’s role is to look ahead and drop payloads on enemy targets, potentially giving the pilot a distant standoff in high threat environments.

At this stage Jamison proposes that the defence industry undertake a study to determine what sort of wingman architecture makes the most sense for SA. This could then lay the basis for a technology demonstrator programme and a concept of operations. Decisions would have to be made on sensors and munitions, the level and types of stealth required, its range and speed, launch and recovery options, interfaces with the Gripen and ground stations, the level of autonomy, and self-defence sensors and capabilities.

Jamison argues a robotic wingman “makes good sense” for South Africa as it would multiply the effectiveness of its small manned Gripen fleet against intensifying threats without requiring the early acquisition or replacement of aircraft. He proposes that the robotic wingman project be implemented together with a Gripen midlife upgrade. The aircraft, which should have a lifespan of over 20 years, is due for an upgrade in a few years’ time.

The Gripen C/D aircraft purchased by South Africa over ten years ago is no longer state of the art, having been superseded by newer versions. Jamison sees an integration of the fighter with a robotic wingman as a means of upgrading SA’s air power. He rejects the idea of unmanned systems taking over from fighter aircraft, which continue to have key benefits in terms of a range of capabilities, notably in the ability to delivery large payloads.

The robotic wingman would allow the Air Force to boost combat capability at a reasonable cost. Another advantage of the adoption of such a technology would be to prepare the Defence force for dealing with enemy unmanned combat aerial vehicles.

With a number of countries in Africa acquiring fourth generation fighters with beyond visual range weapons capabilities and anti-aircraft missile threats proliferating, Jamison says the case for a wingman is strengthened.

While discussion has focused on the use of robotic wingmen with fighters, Jamison suggests that the use of such technology should also be explored for use as a robotic scout for South Africa’s Rooivalk attack helicopters.

The robotic wingman concept covers a range of options, but at its core Jamison says it involves a UAV with, “a reduced observable design to penetrate and survive in defended airspace.” Other core concepts around the idea are that it should have a threat detection capability, have a limited self-defence system, and an evasive manoeuvre capability. It should also be reusable, survivable and, as a general guideline the cost should be no more than ten percent of that of a manned fighter. Decisions would have to be made on the extent to which the Air Force might be prepared to sacrifice such systems in any engagement.

Jamison said SA still has the capability to take such a project through development and into production, but for its success it’s crucial there be teamwork between the major players. He said that it was vital that Armscor, Denel, the private sector, and universities work closely together on such a project.