Though the AUKUS agreement has made a splash, Australia will soon assemble an advanced Loyal Wingman Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).
Boeing has decided to build their Loyal Wingman in Queensland, Australia, marking the company’s first aircraft assembly location outside of North America.
“Boeing Australia will establish the facility in the Wellcamp Aerospace and Defence Precinct at Wellcamp Airport to produce and assemble the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (also known as Loyal Wingman), the first military combat aircraft designed, developed, and manufactured in Australia in half a century,” the official Boeing press release explained. “The aircraft made its first flight in February 2021.”
“It’s the result of an arrangement our government entered into with Boeing Australia last year to support the establishment of the primary final assembly facility for the Boeing Loyal Wingman here in Queensland, subject to defence orders,” an official Queensland statement explained. “It’s expected the project could generate up to $1 billion dollars for Queensland’s economy over ten years, with more than just defence industries to benefit.”
This latest pronouncement comes on the heels of the tripartite AUKUS defense agreement between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The provisions of that agreement pave the way for Canberra to leverage American and British nuclear submarine expertise to help Australia push back against an increasingly assertive and antagonistic Chinese foreign policy. But, with this Boeing deal, Australia is poised to expand its presence above the waves and into the skies.
Airpower Teaming System
Boeing’s drone has the potential to revolutionize aerial warfare. Flying in tandem with pilots, teams of networked Loyal Wingman or similar UAVs could act as eyes and ears for pilots, flying into contested airspace and detecting threats on the ground or in the air.
Loyal Wingman and other similar drones would rely on artificial intelligence to locate and assess threats and make some decisions on the best course of action to counter those threats. However, Boeing emphasizes that human pilots would constantly remain in the loop and therefore in control. However, the potential for UAVs like Boeing's to shoot down human-piloted aircraft or air defenses with human operators in them presents some ethical concerns.
Though Boeing’s Loyal Wingman will be manufactured in Australia and presumably mesh well with the Royal Australian Air Force, there is great potential for the UAV with the United States Air Force too. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is almost a southern hemisphere arm of the U.S. Air Force—it operates some of the same aircraft and could operate more tightly together than many other air forces. So Boeing’s Loyal Wingman won’t just be Australian.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer with The National Interest. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.