India will be joining the elite club of countries with not only fifth-generation stealth fighter jets but also hi-tech drones that would be accompanying them, in the next few years.
A few days after the AMCA stealth fighter program entered the production phase, the country’s lone state-owned aerospace company has revealed an in-development loyal wingman project. Both aircraft, scheduled to take their test flight in 2024, would give a big boost to New Delhi’s flagship indigenization effort.
The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is on track to conduct flight testing of a loyal wingman program by 2024, Janes reported. The project, known as the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) ‘Warrior’, began in 2018 and was unveiled at Aero India 2021.
CATS will include a manned fighter aircraft that will serve as the system’s “mothership”. There will be a swarm of UAVs and UCAVs that will be controlled by the mothership. CATS ‘Warrior’ will be one of the UCAVs or loyal wingmen of the system.
Loyal wingman is a low-cost, pilotless aircraft with sufficient flight performance and intelligence to support manned and advanced fighters jets in combat. The concept, available only with a few nations until now, works on this principle: a crewed fighter jet is paired with a squadron of capable but uncrewed low-cost, attritable aircraft.
Each uncrewed aircraft has a mission-specific payload, such as sensors, weaponry, or electronic warfare capabilities, and can fly ahead of its crewed counterpart. These aircraft can also be used as low-cost decoys to aid identify and overwhelm opposing air defenses, as well as to divert fires away from crewed fighter jets.
The ‘Warrior’ is a twin-engine unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), according to the manufacturer. In order to protect the tails of manned fighter aircraft, this unmanned aircraft will fly behind or alongside them. It will be capable of attacking both aerial and ground targets.
Sweet bit of sim video of the CATS Warrior, an in-development loyal wingman drone under development by India’s HAL & a private startup. Our piece on the mock-up breaking cover at #AeroIndia2021 https://t.co/GIJsxH0h1q pic.twitter.com/TdC2CB2lVJ
— Livefist (@livefist) February 1, 2021
The project has significantly progressed since Aero India 2021, according to a HAL official and would soon be ready for its flight test.
At present, Warrior is undergoing wind-tunnel testing. The flight-testing is expected in 2024. The engine is likely to be certified by 2025, according to the manufacturer.
“As the CATS Warrior is a twin-engined design, we believe that using two HTFE-25 engines will give the UCAV the necessary performance to match frontline combat aircraft,” said the HAL official, as cited in the report. HAL’s HTFE-25 is a turbofan engine with a thrust of 25 kN.
India’s Futuristic Aircraft
The Warrior made its debut in 2019 as a result of a collaboration between HAL and a start-up firm. The mock-up, which was on display at Aero India last year, has an internal weapons bay with a DRDO Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW) and an indigenous stand-off munition that was earlier tested over the Bay of Bengal from a Hawk jet trainer.
The highlight at HAL is definitely manned-unmanned teaming. Some rather enticing UAS concepts on display, from loyal wingman, to air-launched switchblade swarm drones, and cruise missile shaped air-launched wingmen! All centred on the LCA as HAL’s flagship product going forward. pic.twitter.com/dGDk74X7m8
— Angad Singh (@zone5aviation) February 1, 2021
The Warrior is a teaming drone that will work with assets such as the LCA Tejas and the Rafale. It will be similar to Boeing’s Air Power Teaming System (ATS) and the Kratos Valkyrie loyal wingman drone system in terms of design. It is not clear yet if Warrior would be a loyal wingman to India’s futuristic AMCA.
On the other hand, the AMCA is also scheduled to make its first flight around the same time as Warrior. The AMCA is a twin-engine stealth aircraft with an internal weapons bay and a diverterless supersonic intake.
It will be a 25-tonne aircraft with 1,500 kg internal and 5,500 kg external payloads, as well as 6,500 kg of internal fuel.
The stealthy Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) would have ‘super cruise’ capabilities. It will be capable of air superiority, ground strikes, enemy air defense suppression, and electronic warfare, among other things.
India Set To Enter ‘Elite’ Club
The CATS Warrior would be part of a family of loyal wingman aircraft and systems, which will include small swarming drones, a remote weapons carrier launched by manned fighters, and even a drone control aircraft.
Until now, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Russia are among the nations working on “loyal wingman” UCAVs.
Last year, the US Air Force flew the first “Skyborg” drone, equipped with a unique autonomy system, bringing the service one step closer to fielding an uncrewed “loyal wingman” for human pilots.
Russia has made more strides. It announced in September 2019 that a Su-57 fifth-generation combat aircraft and an S-70 Okhotnik unmanned aerial vehicle had successfully completed a test flight.
At the Army-2020 expo outside of Moscow a year later, Russian military contractor Kronstadt Group unveiled the Grom uncrewed combat aerial vehicle. The Grom is expected to work alongside the Su-35 and Su-57 planes to combat opposing air defenses.
China also unveiled a drone idea last year that is comparable in mission– and appearance – to the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie from the United States.
According to Wu Wei, a spokesperson of China Aerospace Science Technology Corp’s (CASTC) Feihong product line, the long-range ‘FH-97 drone’ can carry a variety of weaponry and has swarm and electronic warfare capabilities.
Australia has gone a step further as its loyal wingman aircraft completed test flights on March 21. It was also given its official name, ‘MQ-28A “Ghost Bat”’ during a ceremony at RAAF Base Amberley. It has been conceived, built, and flown in collaboration with Boeing.
Similarly, only three countries in the world have fifth-generation stealth fighters. The United States boasts its stealth duo — F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II — while Russia has the Su-57 and China possesses the J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’. Additionally, the latter two are developing Su-75 Checkmate and FC-31 stealth fighters, respectively.
Turkey is focused on its TF(X) and Pakistan aims to produce ‘Project Azm’ but doubts galore about its proposed fifth-generation fighter given the country’s poor financial conditions.
Amid all this, India’s loyal wingman plan is significant as it is expected to enhance the country’s combat capability against future threats.