One drone is paired with the new B-21 Raider strategic bomber. Another claims to be a faithful wingman for the F-35, F-22 and the future sixth generation fighter. But it is possible that as a result they will stop at the universal version.
In connection with plans to develop escort drones, there is little new information about the B-21 Raider strategic bomber, which Northrop Grumman is to roll out of the assembly shop next year and take it into the air for the first time. The aircraft is planned to be put into service in 2026-2027, having assembled at least 149 aircraft in subsequent years. The new bomber will replace the existing fleet of strategists - B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit.
Practically nothing is known about the tactical and technical characteristics of the B-21. Judging by the vague statements of US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and representatives of Northrop Grumman, this aircraft contains all the most advanced and proven. Outwardly, it resembles the B-2, but some important changes have been made to the design, in particular, to the nozzle and air intakes. He is allegedly capable of withstanding modern air defense systems and even the Russian S-400.
“It has a very long range,” Kendall continued. - It is unobtrusive and carries a significant payload. The aircraft is capable of carrying both conventional ammunition and thermonuclear weapons. "
Much more about the B-21 was told by a photograph that the press service of the US Air Force published without thinking about the secrecy of the project. The photo shows a pre-fabricated awning for the B-21. Such "tents" are supposed to be used outside air bases of permanent deployment. Based on the dimensions of the concrete slabs of the airfield and the cars standing next to the awning, aviation enthusiasts quickly calculated the length and width of the shelter, and then the approximate dimensions of the aircraft. It turned out that the fuselage of the B-21 is about 15 meters long, and the wingspan is 42 meters. It is clearly smaller than the B-2 Spirit, which measures 21 and 52 meters, respectively. The new aircraft should be a cost-effective alternative to the B-2.
An Air Force source familiar with the program told The Breaking Defense magazine that the military is still undecided about what tasks will be assigned to the unmanned B-21 partner. “The tactics of use have yet to be determined,” he said. "But we are going to combine the drones into some kind of connection under the control of the operator on the B-21."
According to the current views of the Air Force command, one manned fighter or bomber will have a squadron of about five drones under its command. “The idea is for the manned aircraft to determine the conditions of the game, using unmanned combat aircraft for their own purposes. Drones can be “pawns in the chess game” that are sacrificed to induce an adversary to reveal himself. They will be able to conduct reconnaissance, serve as mobile relay stations. They can break through enemy defenses and strike far behind the front line, as well as help repel an attack. But the exact range of tasks will depend on the set of programs from which the operator can choose. This is what remains to be resolved, ”said an informer from the BBC.
One more aspect also remains open for the American Air Force: to choose one universal drone, which will be "sharpened" for a specific task, or to order a set of fairly cheap drones with a narrow specialization. The latter option is attractive because it gives the opportunity to work not only for large contractors, but also for mid-range companies such as Kratos, General Atomics and Dynetics. "In this case, a completely different dynamics may arise in the military-industrial complex with more positive effects for the economy as a whole," said a source in the BBC.
It seems that the latter is the preferred option for now. This is indicated, in particular, by the work of the Air Force Research Laboratory on the Skyborg program. We are talking about some kind of universal artificial intelligence for all drones with an understandable interface for operators who can issue commands to mixed unmanned systems.
According to Rebecca Grant, aerospace expert at IRIS Independent Research, building drones will require a very sophisticated and thoughtful communication package, as well as a reliable and secure communication channel. He must ensure the stability of the system against the effects of electronic warfare. In addition, the drone must be able not only to execute the operator's commands, but also to carry out combat operations autonomously in the depths of the enemy's defense. “Kendall was part of a group that spent six years investing in developing related programs. They have created a really impressive security protocol”, - she said.
It should be said that the idea of making pilots as safe as possible is being promoted by many countries. Similar symbiosis of controlled and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones will take on tasks that are too dangerous for people) are pondering in many countries, including Russia and China. Australia, for example, is working with American Boeing to develop its own UAV, code-named Loyal Wingman. The UK is hoping to create a Mosquito that will fly with the future British Tempest fighter jet.
But this is still in the future, albeit not so distant.