MQ-28 Ghost Bat for the US Air Force
The US Air Force is actively working on the concept of a “faithful wingman” unmanned aerial vehicle and supports several projects of this kind. Recently it became known that the Pentagon is considering participating in further work on the MQ-28 Ghost Bat project from Boeing Australia. This project is expected to become a valuable source of ideas and solutions for other programs and developments.
Successes and plans
Recall that the MQ-28 UAV has been developed since the late XNUMXs by the Australian branch of Boeing with the participation of American colleagues. The customer was the Royal Australian Air Force. They want to get a heavy multi-purpose drone suitable for solving a wide range of combat and other tasks, as well as capable of operating independently or in conjunction with a manned aircraft.
In 2019, Boeing Australia showed for the first time a full-size mock-up of the UAV, then called the Airpower Teaming System. In the spring of next year, the Australian company rolled out the first experimental ATS. In September, ground tests of systems and units began. Since October, the prototype has been running.
On February 27, 2021, ATS completed its first test flight. In the following months, several more test flights took place, and in November a second prototype took off. By the end of the flight test phase, it is planned to complete the construction of four more machines.
On March 21, 2022, during the official ceremony, ATS was renamed MQ-28. Also, the drone was given the name Ghost Bat (“Australian false vampire”). The UAV was named after the bat, which is characterized by flock hunting and group use of echolocation. The KVVS had in mind that the “faithful wingmen” of the MQ-28 would be able to use their equipment and work with each other just as effectively.
Flight testing of the MQ-28 using a “squadron” of prototypes will continue for several more years. Depending on the success and progress, the acceptance of equipment into the KVVS and the start of operation will occur in 2024-25. “Vampires” are proposed to be used to escort tactical aircraft F / A-18F or F-35 in combat missions, as well as to cover special EA-18G, E-7, etc.
Interest from the outside
Back in 2019-20. Boeing, with its “Australian” ATS project, joined the US Air Force research program called Skyborg. The purpose of the latter is to develop technologies and solutions in the field of “faithful followers”, and ATS could find its place in it.
In December 2020, Boeing and other participants in the program received contracts for the development and construction of experimental equipment, as well as the subsequent conduct of preliminary tests. At the same time, it was not about the direct use of the finished ATS project, but about updating it in accordance with the requirements of the program and new developments.
Work on Skyborg continues. Several participating companies build equipment and carry out other necessary activities. The results of the program will be determined only in the future. At the same time, the prospects of the ATS project within the framework of this program were called into question.
Recently, on August 22, Breaking Defense reported that US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed new prospects for the ATS / MQ-28 project. Thus, the United States and Australia are conducting preliminary negotiations on the purchase of ready-made UAVs built according to the existing version of the project. The agreement is expected to be signed within the next few weeks. At the same time, its exact conditions are not yet ready to be disclosed.
The negotiations are connected with the promising American program NGAD. The US Air Force plans to create a new generation of tactical aircraft and UAVs to interact with it, and several American companies are now working on such technology. Ready UAV MQ-28 is considered as a fallback. In the absence of noticeable success in new projects, it is the Vampire that will enter the NGAD program and, possibly, become the “faithful wingman” of the future aircraft.
The Australian side agrees to such cooperation. The KVVS expect that the participation of the Pentagon will speed up the work and get the desired result faster. In addition, with the help of the United States and its industry, it will be possible to quickly establish mass production of equipment and reduce its cost.
For what reason, the US Air Force is not limited to the Boeing ATS project as part of the Skyborg program and wants to join the MQ-28, is not reported. It is also unknown what will happen to ATS if a new agreement is signed. In fact, we are talking about two almost identical projects, and there is simply no visible sense in the simultaneous support of both.
The reasons for the US Air Force’s interest in the MQ-28 project are simple and understandable. This drone was developed by a longtime and reliable partner of the Pentagon, it belongs to a promising class of equipment and has high design characteristics. At the same time, unlike a number of other “faithful wingmen”, the MQ-28 successfully passes flight tests. At the same time, the autonomous and group capabilities of such a UAV are already being demonstrated.
Obviously, it is the latter fact that causes the greatest interest of the American side. The project is still far from completion and launch of full operation, but it is already showing success and good dynamics. This means that the technologies and solutions used in it have almost reached the required maturity. After the remaining fine-tuning, they will be ready for full-fledged service.
At the moment, it is the MQ-28 Ghost Bat that looks like one of the most advanced developments in its class. Therefore, the Pentagon wants to study this project and use it to their advantage. A similar ATS project from the same developer is still in its early stages and has not had time to show its advantages. In addition, he has already lagged behind the MQ-28, and for its development, flight tests, etc. it will take some time.
Having received the Vampire product, the Pentagon will study this development and will probably pay great attention to its comparison with the previous ATS project. Comprehensive tests will also be carried out, both independent and group tests with aircraft and other drones. Through this, the Air Force will be able to complement its experience in the field of “loyal wingmen” and, possibly, explore some new ideas.
Further actions of the Air Force depend on the results of such work. They can take the MQ-28 into service in its current form or order its revision, taking into account the results of the tests. In addition, such a UAV may be abandoned in favor of the development of a new model based on its technologies.
In general, the main goal of the Air Force is the main components and technologies of the project, with the help of which Boeing has created an advanced control system with special capabilities. How exactly and in what form they will be put into practice is a secondary question. In any case, practical results are expected from them in the context of the next generation of tactical aviation.
Benefits of cooperation
Thus, the US Air Force continues to develop one of the most interesting promising areas, and for this they plan to again enlist the support of one of the leading organizations. Moreover, they are going to study and – if it justifies itself – put into service one of the most developed and progressive models of our time.
With all the expected benefits, the current situation has curious features. So, the promising MQ-28 project was developed by order of the Australian Air Force, and they ensured the implementation of the bulk of the work. And only after that the US Air Force became seriously interested in the new drone and its technologies and offered joint work. This can probably be interpreted as a recognition of its lagging behind, but it is precisely through such cooperation that the Pentagon is going to get ahead of everyone in the future.