At the Australian International Airshow in Avalon, Victoria on February 27, Australian Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne unveiled Boeing’s latest aeronautical innovation. The Boeing Airpower Teaming System was developed in Australia and is one of the first unmanned aircraft intended for use in the ‘Loyal Wingman’ concept. This concept, animated in a 2018 Air Force Research Laboratory video, involves fewer manned aircraft supported by greater numbers of unmanned aircraft and allows for cheaper, higher risk operations.
Boeing asserts that the Airpower Teaming System will be able to deliver fighter-like performance at a fraction of the price, thus allowing such a strategy to become feasible. For example, the range of Boeing’s drone is 800 nautical miles greater than the United States Air Force’s fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighter. Kristin Robertson, Vice President and General Manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems describes the Airpower Teaming System as having the versatility to perform “different types of missions in tandem with other aircraft” via sensors and artificial intelligence. Price has certainly been a concern of the US Department of Defense following the delayed and over-budget development of the F-35. Though the cost of an F-35A has been reduced by 60 percent since its first batch, 2014 estimates by the Government Accountability Office indicated that operating the F-35 fleet would cost 79 percent more than the old fleet it would replace.
Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System is the company’s largest investment in unmanned technologies outside the United States, and the Australian government will invest $28.75 million in the prototype program. It is the latest indication of a deepening US-Australian defense relationship spurred by Chinese efforts to project greater influence into an increasingly complex and contested Indo-Pacific region. On January 29 at the US-Australian Dialogue on Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, Foreign Minister Marise Payne articulated the Australian foreign policy position of maintaining both a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and a “strong and productive relationship with China”. China remains crucial to Australia’s economic future, accounting for 24 percent of Australia’s total trade in 2017.
In order to maintain the current rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, the Australian government has committed to modernizing and expanding the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The 2016 Defence White Paper states that the ADF will be expanded to 62,400 personnel by 2026 and that 2 percent of national GDP will be spent on defense. The Australian government has already made great strides in achieving these goals. In 2016, $869 million was spent on US arms, making Australia the third largest US defense export market. Australia has also prioritized the development of domestic defense industries through the establishment of a fund of $3.8 billion in 2018 with the aim of becoming a top 10 global arms exporter within a decade.
Jesse Park is participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is studying a Bachelor of International and Global Studies and a Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney.