The U.S. Air Force is successfully flying its Valkyrie drone alongside F-35 jets and F-22 jets as part of a series of clear steps toward bringing the much-discussed “loyal wingman” concept to life, a developing technological effort to enable fifth-generation fighter jets to operate nearby drones from the cockpit while in flight. This reduces latency and massively expedites real-time warzone operations.
The concept of operation with this is to bring manned-unmanned connectivity to new levels of efficiency to support a more organic kind of command and control experience wherein fighter jets themselves sustain direct operational control of the drones and can of course view video feeds in real-time. The concept has been in development now for many years. Now, the United States is bringing this kind of capability much closer to operational status and the Russian military may be experiencing similar successes too.
Several Russian news reports have, in recent years, said that Russia’s well-known fifth-generation Su-57 aircraft has performed “joint flights” in coordination with the country’s emerging S-70 Okhontik-B drone. Last year, a report from TASS, Russia’s news agency, claimed that the drone “maneuver[ed] in the air in the automated mode at an altitude of around 1,600 meters,” alongside a Sukhoi Su-57 in a flight that lasted thirty minutes. The TASS article notes that the stealthy-looking Russian drone has a take-off weight of twenty tons and can hit speeds of roughly one thousand kilometers per hour. It is being developed by the Russian Sukhoi Design Bureau.
Manned-unmanned teaming, as it is called, could be identified as fundamental to the wave of the future when it comes to air warfare, as it naturally introduces new tactical possibilities for an attack. Much of the prevailing consensus regarding what is likely to determine outcomes in future wars, especially should they involve great-power conflict, could be described in terms of “sensor-to-shooter” timelines. Air-to-air rapid connectivity between drones and armed, supersonic stealth fighter jets could enable attack aircraft to seek and destroy enemy targets before they are seen.
Interestingly, the Army was on the forefront of manned-unmanned teaming years ago when Apache attack helicopter crews were engineered with an ability to view live feeds from nearby drones in the cockpit and also control a drone’s sensor payload and flight path. This technology, which deployed to great effect in Afghanistan in recent years, reshaped helicopter attack tactics as Apache pilots were able to find, detect and track enemy targets before even taking off, due to being able to receive incoming drone video feeds.
The technical advance is quite significant, as it not only reduces latency in terms of data transmission but naturally massively streamlines command and control, such that fifth-generation fighter aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 jets can control the flight path, mission scope and sensor payload of nearby drones to test enemy defenses, blanket areas with forward-surveillance or even fire weapons when directed by humans. Perhaps F-35 jets could operate a small forward fleet of mini-drones to jam enemy radar, overwhelm sensors or network targeting data back to air and ground nodes.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
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