The Challenge of Operating Integrated Manned and Unmanned Systems


By John Conway

The concept of a ‘wingman’ is as old as military aviation itself. Providing mutual support within a formation, the purpose of a wingman was established to protect the flight lead and provide him or her with the additional mental capacity to manage the formation, operate the aircraft, and make decisions.

As the role developed, the most important tasks for the wingman were to help avoid an attack by an unseen enemy, contribute to the formation’s situational awareness, and watch out for obvious signs the leader had either missed something or made an error. At the very heart of the idea was an acceptance that the human is fallible and, in the heat of battle, task saturation was likely to result in mistakes and errors in tactical decision-making.

In the early years of aviation, a wingman would be positioned slightly behind the lead aircraft in close visual proximity to the wings of the leader. But as advances in technology introduced new inter and intra-flight data links, such as Link 16, and increased levels of integration with airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) systems such as the E-7 Wedgetail, formations became invariably separated beyond visual range of each other and able to benefit from the ‘god’s eye view’ of the world and shared situational awareness.

There are, of course, still times when a wingman is required to be in close visual range, but these are becoming more suited to non-tactical reasons such as transits through controlled airspace or through poor weather conditions.

So what started out as a role providing visual lookout support has now been transformed by the introduction of multi-sensor fusion displays and data links, with mutual support by proximity now measured in miles rather than metres. The fundamental purpose of a wingman has changed over the years from supporting and protecting the leader, to one which is focused on the greater concentration of firepower and more effective application and multiplication of force.


Yet perhaps the most transformational aspect of the evolving wingman role is that of the unmanned ‘Loyal Wingman’, a wingman that does as it is told and does not get distracted by the fear and chaos of battle.

This is not to say a human wingman is fundamentally disloyal, nor does it undermine the importance of a human in dealing with the complexities of highly dynamic, multi-dimensional fights in the air. But it does unlock what the incoming Commandant of the US Marine Corps calls, “the game-changing opportunities with manned and unmanned teaming”.

The concept of the Unmanned Air System (UAS), or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), is nothing new nor is their use in missions which traditionally challenge human performance, fragility, and endurance. Often described as the dull, dirty, and dangerous missions, unmanned systems have provided the commander with a far broader range of options for the application of force against even the most challenging target sets. However, ongoing operational experience confirms unmanned systems on their own are not the panacea.

When Boeing Defence Australia announced its Loyal Wingman project at Avalon earlier this year it sparked significant discussion and, not least, progressed the argument for greater numbers of unmanned platforms in a far more mature and balanced way than hitherto.

The manned-unmanned narrative is now sensibly shifting towards “and” rather than “or”.  Manned and unmanned teaming – the US Army coined the term MUM-T – is a powerful concept which leverages the strengths and mitigates the weakness of each platform and concentrates the mind on the important operational aspects, such as imaginative new roles and the challenges of integration.

It should come as no surprise, then, to see the expansion of the loyal wingman concept in recent times into the other warfighting domains.

The ADF formally recognises five warfighting domains, sometimes referred to as environments: Air (to include Space), Land, Sea, Information and Human. The applications of unmanned systems in the land environment are moving beyond tactical flying drones, with BAE Systems Australia recently awarded a contract to support Australian Army plans to modify two M113AS4 armoured personnel carriers at the company’s Edinburgh Parks facility in Adelaide, using autonomous technologies developed in Australia.

Moreover, reports are now emerging from the US about recent developments in unmanned surface and sub-surface combatants, which are opening new ways of warfighting and creating opportunities to reconceptualise joint operations and move away from the platform-on-platform engagements which have traditionally characterised the battlespace.

Yet these ideas cannot get too far ahead of policy and the dollars, with manned and unmanned teaming driving a wholesale reconsideration of the US Navy budget. Despite an increasingly complex threat and the rapid developments in autonomous technologies, there is still much to be done to build consensus that the future lies in MUM-T.


The Boeing Company was recently awarded a US$43m (A$63m) contract for the fabrication, test, and delivery of four Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs) and associated support elements. The Orca XLUUV is described in open sources as a modular, open architecture, reconfigurable UUV with its own guidance and control, navigation, situational awareness, communications, power, propulsion and mission sensors.

Taking a closer look, this project appears to be the proverbial tip of the iceberg, with the US Navy in pursuit of a much broader family of unmanned surface and undersea vehicles based upon three core variants: Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles (LUSVs), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSVs), and Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs) such as the Orca. Reports suggest the USN is seeking to invest over US$600m (A$873m) in near term research and development for these programs and their enabling technologies.

While the platforms themselves are fascinating from a technology perspective, what is more significant is their wider employment in a distributed architecture when teamed with the manned surface and sub-surface fleets containing a greater proportion of smaller, agile platforms.

The new unmanned platforms are expected to carry a range of sensors and weapon systems almost certainly configured for anti-surface warfare and maritime strike. Yet the potential for broader counter-air missions set within the co-operative engagement framework opens up new possibilities and significantly leverages existing manned surface fleet capability as well as providing a means of enabling integrated fire control, with the air layer containing E-2D Hawkeye, F-35C, F/A-18F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers.

But as ever, the platforms are only half the story.

The distributed architecture alluded to earlier will require a complex web of advanced datalinks and communication systems to make it operate as a combat system. Designing and building this ‘kill web’ so that it can enable the delivery of manned-unmanned firepower across domains will be a huge challenge not least due to the laws of physics.

And then the ability to train, test, evaluate and validate tactics and procedures will add a whole new level of complexity to generate the ‘trusted autonomy’ required for warfighting. And that is exactly why we should do it.

It will be interesting to see whether the Commonwealth’s policy settings and budget profiles for the Australian warship continuous build program allows the headroom for the RAN and the broader ADF to explore the full potential for manned and unmanned teaming in the context of future joint operations alongside the US Navy, and indeed the USAF and US Army.

From its humble origins at the platform level, the opportunities and potential of the wingman concept can now be realised at the enterprise level, which will fundamentally transform Joint and Coalition operations.

The ‘force level wingman’ – game-changing indeed.

This Feature appeared in the September-October 2019 edition of ADBR.