Like a bat out of hell: pilotless combat aircraft takes flight
Photo: The MQ-28A Ghost Bat above Woomera, South Australia.
In only three years, the Royal Australian Air Force’s revolutionary pilotless combat aircraft went from an idea to take to the sky.
Now it has a name: the MQ-28A Ghost Bat, the first warplane in half a century to be designed and built in this country.
As the prototype was wheeled out at Amberley air base west of Brisbane on Monday, Defence Minister Peter Dutton said fast-tracked development was what he wanted – and an increasingly perilous strategic outlook demanded – of defence acquisition … not decades to bring on new weapon systems but a timeframe whittled down to a handful of years.
In the case of what was formerly known as the air force’s Loyal Wingman program, that means the Ghost Bat could be in service by 2025, flying alongside the F/A-18F Super Hornet and new F-35A stealth fighter with an AI-enabled computer in the pilot’s seat.
“I have been very clear publicly and privately about my intent to condense timelines, to achieve capability more quickly than we have in the past,” Mr Dutton said.
Pointing to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he said: “There is a realisation we are living in a new age and we need to increase our sovereign capability; this is a prime example of how we can do it.
“I have asked for lessons to be learnt from this project that we can apply into other programs where decision-making has been condensed. The governance arrangements are still adhered to, but if we can achieve an outcome of something this technical in nature, that’s a very significant milestone and step for us. And it’s a very clear message to other program managers that our expectations are very high.”
The aircraft is the culmination of a joint venture between the Defence Department and Boeing to develop what the American aeronautical giant calls an Airpower Teaming System. Never before has Boeing done this outside the US.
Peter Dutton at RAAF Base Amberley, Queensland.
Ghost Bat is certainly a snappier handle for what promises to be a gamechanger in aerial warfare. The Cessna-sized drone, measuring 11.7m from nose to tail, is designed to be slaved to a piloted aircraft or remotely operated by a controller on the ground.
Ultimately, it could fly into combat in semi-autonomous or even fully independent mode, the computer calling the shots. While the aircraft’s performance specs are secret, it will be able to pull off gravity-defying acrobatics that no human pilot could endure.
The price tag promises to be a fraction of the $140m cost of the F-35. And if the program advances to production in the middle of the decade under the schedule cited by Mr Dutton, it could become a $1bn-a-year export earner to Australia’s AUKUS partners, the US and Britain, as well as other allies.
Head of air force capability Air Vice-Marshal Robert Denney said the Ghost Bat would perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Armed versions would be capable of air-to-air combat and air-to-ground strikes.
Boeing program director Glen Ferguson said the name reflected an Australian native mammal “known for teaming together in a pack to detect and hunt”.
While the government spent $155m to get the aircraft into flight trials at the Woomera test range in South Australia last year and plans were being pursued by Boeing to manufacture it at the Wagner family’s industrial park adjoining their Wellcamp airport outside Toowoomba, Mr Dutton cautioned the Ghost Bat was not a done deal.
“This is a risky project … that easily could have gone sideways, and it could into the future,” he said.
Pressed on criticism by defence commentators including this paper’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, that the government’s big-ticket defence acquisitions on nuclear submarines and new frigates was on the “never never” when Russia’s war on Ukraine and China’s sabre rattling underscored the immediacy of the threat, Mr Dutton said: “I think this platform blows out of the water some of the arguments that we don’t have the ability to deliver in short periods of time platforms that have incredible capability, including lethal response.
“This collaboration demonstrates that for the first time in 50 years we have been able to design and manufacture an aircraft with 21st-century capability ahead of other partners, and I think that is to be celebrated.”
It would cause “our adversaries to think twice about when they target us as a nation or our allies as we fight alongside them in our region or across the world”, Mr Dutton said.