It may appear to the casual observer that military and civilian drones are a relatively new phenomenon, but the truth is that the experimental use of drones commenced in the late 1980s, and primitive systems like the US Navy’s Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) were used for naval gunfire direction and control during the First Persian Gulf War of 1991.
The War on Terror saw widespread use of armed drones for a variety of missions, but while these platforms like the MQ-1 Predator were both sophisticated and capable, they were only capable of operating in a permissive environment, such as uncontested airspace.
But for employment in an operating area bristling with hostile fighters and Surface-To-Air missile systems a platform with greater performance and survivability is needed, and that is where the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) enters the story.
The United States has done much of the heavy lifting with the development of UCAVs and has conceptualised and prototyped some capable technology demonstrators like the X-47B for the US Navy and the X-45 series of technology demonstrators for the USAF.
Other nations have active programs for UCAV development, and one of the most promising is the Airpower Teaming System (ATS) program between the Boeing Corporation and the Royal Australian Air Force.
In an amazingly short time, this program has not only designed and produced the first combat aircraft in Australia in 50 years, but also looks to introduce the first production UCAV into active service with a national air arm. In March 2022 the ATS UCAV was formally named the MQ-28A Ghost Bat, and while flight testing still continues an order for ten production aircraft has been announced by the RAAF.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has had much experience with employing drones in the field, mainly in the intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance (ISR) tasking spectrum.
While new long-range unarmed drones like the MQ-4C Triton operated by the RAAF and an array of new light drones employed by the Australian Army for battlefield surveillance were recently introduced into service, the government commissioned studies into acquiring a UCAV capability for the RAAF.
Much interest was taken in similar projects in allied nations, and as Boeing already had design and manufacturing experience with UCAV in the United States it was approached to collaborate in a UCAV development program with the RAAF.
A rapid process of conceptualisation and technical drafting of a potential design led to formal approval for the project in 2019, and the first of three prototypes was authorised for manufacture soon after.
This first prototype was showcased to the public in May 2020, and during September and October, power-up and taxi tests were conducted. The first flight of the Ghost Bat occurred in February 2021.
Interestingly, the mostly automated assembly facility for the prototypes was also used to validate the manufacturing process for production aircraft.
Digital drafting work on computers saved much money in design costs, and besides the Boeing Corporation, 35 Australian companies were involved with the manufacture and supply of components for the aircraft.
The MQ-28A consists of over 70% local content, and a new manufacturing facility was opened in Toowoomba, Queensland in September 2021.
The Ghost Bat is designed to be a low-cost, stealthy, high-performance UCAV capable of performing multi-role aerial missions. It is capable of both external control and autonomous operation, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is employed for the latter operational mode.
Fitted with a Very Light Jet (VLJ) type of power plant normally used in very light passenger aircraft, the airframe is of modest proportions as no heavy and space-intensive pilot support systems are needed, but the aircraft is both capable of excellent performance figures and a useful load-out capacity.
The multirole capability is made possible by the modular and removable nose of the airframe, and specialised nose sections can be installed for different roles such as air combat missions, reconnaissance/surveillance and Electronic Warfare (EW) roles.
The modest dimensions of the MQ-28A ensure easy transport of the system, as the wings are easily removable and the entire assembly can be packed into a standard 40-foot shipping container for shipping and deployment.
A total of four Ghost Bats can be transported at one time in a large military aircraft like the C-17A Globemaster.
As the ATS project is still in its relatively early days and much developmental and testing work needs to still be done on the MQ-28A aircraft, only partial dimensions and performance figures have been released to the public domain.
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What numbers that have been revealed, along with pictures and videos of the airframe are enough for us to present a reasonably clear description of the Ghost Bat’s size and capabilities.
The MQ-28A has a length of 11.7 metres (38.4 feet), an estimated height of just over 2 metres (6.5 feet) and a wingspan of 7.3 metres (24 feet).
The empty weight of the airframe is thought to register under 3,000 kg (6,615 lbs), and as much experimental work on payloads is still being undertaken no fully loaded figures are currently available.
The Ghost Bat has a range of 3,700 kilometres (2,300 miles), which is very impressive considering the small size of the airframe. The power plant used is the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW 600 turbofan, which is in the VLJ category of jet engine.
Despite this small engine with a thrust rating at full power of 1,650 lbs, the MQ-28A is capable of high subsonic speeds in level flight and can go supersonic in a dive.
The 2.6 metre (8.5 feet) removable nose section is modular in conception and can be fitted with the following equipment according to the combat role proposed for the airframe: packages include Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, electro/optical sensors for ISR/scout missions or specialised equipment for EW missions, and currently unnamed weapons packages for air to air combat roles.
There are two covered bays running between the main landing trucks, but as currently designed these are only 2 metres in length, and can only accommodate munitions of the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) size for now.
However, production airframes of the MQ-28A may well have longer bays which can deploy air/ground missiles/munitions of a larger size.
Proposed Mission Roles and Procurement
General theorising on UCAV employment is still in the early days now, and as UCAV platforms become more capable and user-friendly the range of possible combat uses for aircraft like the MQ-28A will only steadily increase into the future.
The entire concept of the high-performance Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle has only been around for less than two decades, and much developmental work and testing is ongoing around the world.
The exciting possibilities and capabilities promised by UCAV programs continue to be transformed from theoretical musings into production aircraft entering service and operational employment.
The RAAF envisage the MQ-28A to operate alongside the air combat components currently in service, as well as combat support aircraft like the E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft and the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, both of which could control several UCAV drones at the same time.
The Ghost Bat could also be controlled by twin-seat aircraft like the F/A-18F Super Hornet or the EA-18G Growler EW/SEAD aircraft both currently operational with the RAAF.
In more hazardous missions where the electronic spectrum is compromised and teleoperator control of the Ghost Bat is not possible, the aircraft operates autonomously using AI to complete mission objectives.
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A typical air-to-air or strike mission would see Ghost Bat operating far in advance of RAAF combat aircraft like the Super Hornet or the F-35A Lightning.
Acting as scouts, these UCAVs would scan for enemy ground and air targets, and designate them for targeting by the following manned platforms, or engage them with their own on-board weapons.
The MQ-28A could also sacrifice itself in aerial combat, by absorbing hostile fire directed at manned aircraft and springing traps and ambushes by fighters or ground-based anti-aircraft weapon systems.
With the appropriate sensor packages installed the Ghost Bat can also perform long-range ISR or EW mission profiles, and all mission capabilities are enabled by the stealthy nature of the basic airframe.
A rumoured large explosive warhead in one of the modular nose assemblies may indicate a possible strike/kamikaze role, where the entire UCAV is used to directly target High-Value Targets (HVT) such as enemy warships, or command and control centres on land.
At the time of writing, the Royal Australian Air Force is the only prospective operator of the MQ-28A, with ten production aircraft ordered for formal introduction into service in the 2024-5 timeframe.
The testing program continues with the original three prototypes which belong to the entire project conglomeration, not to the RAAF.
This testing program will continue to develop the capabilities of the Ghost Bat, research possible improvements and act as a demonstrator for other countries interested in the platform.
It has been reported that the United States Air Force (USAF) has shown considerable interest in the ATS program, and is contemplating acquiring the MQ-28A Ghost Bat for operational employment alongside American combat aircraft
The acquisition and employment of high-performance drones in the UCAV class is an exciting evolution in the ongoing story of aerial combat, and that story is still being written in the present time and will continue to be done far into the future.
The possibilities for innovation in both capabilities and employment increase by the day, and much developmental work remains to be done in the UCAV field.
However, with the first UCAV platform about to be introduced into regular service, a great deal of this further developmental work will be influenced by operational use, and the lessons learned from these active mission profiles.
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In this, the MQ-28A Ghost Bat will provide much precious operational information and data for later UCAV programs to take advantage of, and the platform will do much to prove the concept of successful future UCAV employment for air arms around the world.
Boeing and the RAAF should accept much praise for the introduction of the Ghost Bat into general service, and with further orders of the aircraft both rumoured and confirmed, the platform looks to be both a conceptual and commercial success story.