Unmanned Platform to Accompany Jet Fighters at Battlefield

fighter aircraft

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A new autonomous aircraft could become the next-generation of drones that accompany manned planes into battle. Northrop Grumman has unveiled the stealthy jet Model 437 developed in a collaboration with Scaled Composites, which also revealed a new variant of its Model 401 technology demonstrator that can be operated in autonomous mode. 

The platforms will be offered for two autonomous aircraft technology programs — the U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg and the United Kingdom’s Project Mosquito.

There is no full-scale prototype yet for Model 437.

US Air Force officials have said attritable platforms — meaning low cost, expendable systems — would bring a variety of capabilities to the battlefield, serving as sensors, jammers or shooters.

At top speeds, the Model 437 could reach Mach .85, with a cruising speed of about Mach .8. It could fly alongside an F-35 and hold 4,000 gallons of fuel, according to the designers.

The Model 437 is a “first cousin” to the Model 401, also known as the Son of Ares. The design is similar, but the newer, autonomous plane can fly faster and longer than its more tested counterpart. 

Both the Model 437 and Model 401 autonomous platforms are options for Skyborg. However, the requirements are still in flux, and the company is waiting on direction from the Air Force, the company said.

The Skyborg program is one of the Air Force’s top science-and-technology priorities under its “Vanguard” initiative to deliver game-changing capabilities to warfighters. The aim is to acquire relatively inexpensive, attritable unmanned aircraft that can leverage artificial intelligence and accompany manned fighter jets into battle. 

Project Mosquito is a British loyal wingman program that aims to fly a platform alongside the F-35 fighter jet, the multirole fighter Typhoon and its replacement, the Tempest, according to nationaldefensemagazine.org.