In the next years, India will join an elite group of countries that will have not only fifth-generation stealth fighter jets, but also high-tech drones to accompany them.
The country’s lone state-owned aerospace industry has unveiled an in-development faithful wingman project just days after the AMCA stealth fighter programme began the manufacturing phase. Both aircraft, which are expected to fly for the first time in 2024, would provide a significant boost to New Delhi’s hallmark indigenization initiative.
According to Janes, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is on schedule to complete flight testing of a faithful wingman programme by 2024. The project began in 2018 and was announced at Aero India 2021 as the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) ‘Warrior.’
CATS will have a manned fighter aircraft serving as the system’s “mothership.” The mothership will command a swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs and UCAVs). CATS ‘Warrior’ will be one of the system’s UCAVs or devoted wingmen.
A low-cost, pilotless aircraft with sufficient flight capability and intelligence to help manned and advanced fighter jets in combat is known as a loyal wingman. The concept, which has so far only been offered to a few countries, works on the following principle: a crewed fighter jet is partnered with a squadron of capable but uncrewed low-cost, attritable aircraft.
Each unmanned aircraft carries a mission-specific payload, such as sensors, armament, or electronic warfare capabilities, and is capable of flying ahead of its crewed counterpart. These planes can also be deployed as low-cost decoys to help detect and overwhelm enemy air defences, as well as to deflect fire from crewed fighter aeroplanes.
According to the manufacturer, the ‘Warrior’ is a twin-engine unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). This unmanned aircraft will fly after or alongside manned fighter aircraft to protect their tails. It will be able to attack targets on the ground and in the air.
According to a HAL official, the project has made great development since Aero India 2021 and will soon be ready for flight testing. Warrior is now undergoing wind tunnel testing. Flight testing is scheduled for 2024. According to the company, the engine will most likely be certified by 2025.
According to the paper, “since the CATS Warrior is a twin-engined design, we feel that adding two HTFE-25 engines will give the UCAV the requisite performance to rival frontline combat aircraft.” The HTFE-25 turbofan engine from HAL has a thrust of 25 kN.
India’s Cutting-Edge Aircraft
The Warrior debuted in 2019 as the product of a partnership between HAL and a start-up company. The mock-up, which was displayed at Aero India last year, contains an internal weapons bay with a DRDO Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW) and an indigenous stand-off munition that was previously tested from a Hawk jet trainer over the Bay of Bengal.
The Warrior is a teaming drone that will work with LCA Tejas and Rafale aircraft. In terms of design, it will resemble Boeing’s Air Power Teaming System (ATS) and the Kratos Valkyrie faithful wingman drone system. It’s unclear whether Warrior will be an obedient ally to India’s futuristic AMCA.
The AMCA, on the other hand, is set to take to the skies around the same time as Warrior. The AMCA is a twin-engine stealth aircraft with an internal weapons bay and a supersonic intake that does not require a diverter.
It will be a 25-tonne aircraft with internal payloads of 1,500 kg and exterior payloads of 5,500 kg, as well as internal fuel of 6,500 kg.
The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) would be stealthy and have’super cruise’ capability. Among other things, it will be capable of air superiority, ground strikes, enemy air defence suppression, and electronic warfare.
India Is About To Join The ‘Elite’ Club
Small swarming drones, a remote weapons carrier launched by manned fighters, and even a drone control aircraft would all be part of the CATS Warrior’s family of faithful wingman aircraft and systems. Until now, the US, the UK, Australia, and Russia have been among the countries developing “faithful wingman” UCAVs.
Last year, the US Air Force successfully piloted the first “Skyborg” drone, which was equipped with a novel autonomy technology, putting the service closer to fielding an uncrewed “faithful wingman” for human pilots.
Russia has progressed further. A Su-57 fifth-generation attack aircraft and an S-70 Okhotnik unmanned aerial vehicle successfully completed a test flight in September 2019.
A year later, Russian military contractor Kronstadt Group revealed the Grom uncrewed combat aerial vehicle at the Army-2020 expo outside of Moscow. To battle opposing air defences, the Grom is expected to work with the Su-35 and Su-57 planes.
Last year, China also showed a drone concept that is similar in goal – and appearance – to the US Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie.
The long-range ‘FH-97 drone’ can carry a variety of weaponry and has swarm and electronic warfare capabilities, according to Wu Wei, a spokeswoman for China Aerospace Science Technology Corp’s (CASTC) Feihong product line.
On March 21, Australia’s loyal wingman aircraft completed test flights, taking it a step further. During a ceremony at RAAF Base Amberley, it was also given its official name, “MQ-28A “Ghost Bat.” It was designed, manufactured, and flown in partnership with Boeing.
In the same way, only three countries have fifth-generation stealth warplanes. The F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II are the stealth aircraft of the United States, whereas Russia has the Su-57 and China has the J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon.’ In addition, the Su-75 Checkmate and FC-31 stealth fighters are being developed by the latter two.
Turkey is concentrating on the TF(X), while Pakistan plans to develop ‘Project Azm,’ however there are serious uncertainties about the proposed fifth-generation fighter due to the country’s financial difficulties.
Against this backdrop, India’s loyal wingman strategy is significant since it is projected to improve the country’s combat capability in the face of future threats.