Britain is to develop its first fleet of unmanned fighter aircraft following a £30 million investment by the Ministry of Defence.

A contract to design and manufacture the prototype ‘Loyal Wingman’ has been awarded to Spirit AeroSystems, in Belfast in a three-year deal which is expected to support 100 jobs. The drone will be designed to fly at high speeds alongside fighter jets such as the Typhoon or F-35.

Spirit AeroSystems’ ‘Team Mosquito’ will develop the RAF’s Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (Lanca) technology, with a vehicle flight-test programme expected by the end of 2023. The MoD plans to start manufacturing the first aircraft by 2025.

A government statement read that the project would bring on board the latest software engineering techniques and civilian aerospace engineering and manufacturing expertise which would result in cost and timeline reductions and would ensure that the aircraft will be capable of being efficiently updated with the latest technology.

Britain’s first uncrewed aircraft

The drone will be armed with missiles, surveillance and electronic warfare technology. As Britain’s first uncrewed aircraft it will be able to target and shoot down enemy aircraft and survive against surface-to-air missiles. The crewed aircraft will be able to assign tasks such as electronic warfare, surveillance or bombing missions to the Lanca drones, increasing the air power at a lower cost and risk to RAF aircrew.

The drones will be able to detect and avoid enemy air defences, with the design expected to be robust enough to continue on mission, even if targeted by cyberattacks. The MoD hopes the drones will be deployed by the end of the decade as part of the wider Tempest programme, designing the next generation of combat aircraft.

The Tempest partnership, which comprises BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo and MBDA employs about 2,500 people and aims to have fighter aircraft in service by the 2040s.

Opportunity to “expand, diversify and rapidly upgrade combat air forces”

Richard Berthon, director of the MoD’s Future Combat Air, said: “Project Mosquito is a vital element of our approach to future air combat, rapidly bringing to life design, build and test skills for next-generation combat air capabilities. Autonomous loyal wingman aircraft create the opportunity to expand, diversify and rapidly upgrade combat air forces in a cost-effective way, now and in the future.”

Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, chief of the air staff, added: “We’re taking a revolutionary approach, looking at a game-changing mix of swarming drones and uncrewed fighter aircraft like Mosquito, alongside piloted fighters like Tempest, that will transform the combat battlespace in a way not seen since the advent of the jet age.”

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