AVALON (New South Wales) • Boeing yesterday unveiled an unmanned, fighter-like jet developed in Australia and designed to fly alongside crewed aircraft in combat for a fraction of the cost.
The US manufacturer hopes to sell the multi-role aircraft, which is 11.6m-long and has a 3,704km range, to customers around the world, modifying it as requested.
The prototype is Australia's first domestically developed combat aircraft since World War II and Boeing's biggest investment in unmanned systems outside the United States, although the company declined to specify the cost.
The Australian government is investing A$40 million (S$39 million) in the prototype programme due to its "enormous capability for exports", Defence Minister Christopher Pyne told reporters at the Australian International Airshow.
Defence contractors are investing increasingly in autonomous technology as militaries around the world look for a cheaper and safer way to maximise their resources.
Boeing rivals, such as Lockheed Martin and Kratos Defence and Security Solutions, are also investing in such aircraft.
Four to six of the new aircraft, called the Boeing Airpower Teaming System, can fly alongside a F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, said Mr Shane Arnott, director of Boeing's research and prototype arm Phantom Works International.
"To bring that extra component and the advantage of unmanned capability, you can accept a higher level of risk," he said. "It is better for one of these to take a hit than for a manned platform."
The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in the US said last year that the country's Air Force should explore pairing crewed and uncrewed aircraft to expand its fleet and complement a limited number of "exquisite, expensive, but highly potent fifth-generation aircraft" like the F-35.
"Human performance factors are a major driver behind current aerial combat practices," the institute's policy paper said.
"Humans can pull only a certain number of G's, fly for a certain number of hours or process a certain amount of information at a given time," it added.
Besides performing like a fighter jet, other roles for the Boeing system include electronic warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance alongside aircraft like the P-8 Poseidon and E-7 Wedgetail, said Ms Kristin Robertson, vice-president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems.
"It is operationally very flexible, modular, multi-mission," she said. "It is a very disruptive price point. Fighter-like capability at a fraction of the cost."
She declined to comment on the cost, however, saying it would depend on the configuration chosen by Boeing customers.
The jet is powered by a derivative of a commercially available engine, uses standard runways for take-off and landing, and can be modified for carrier operations at sea. She declined to specify whether it could reach supersonic speeds, common for modern fighter aircraft.
Its first flight is expected in 2020.