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US Considering Australian Drone for Next-Gen Air Dominance Program: Report

The US is considering buying the Australia-made MQ-28 Ghost Bat drone to pair with the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed to Breaking Defense.

Kendall told the outlet that the two countries are “having preliminary discussions” about the potential purchase of the Boeing Defence Australia drone “as a risk reduction mechanism” for the program’s drone capability.

“I think there’s a lot of mutual interest in working together. And we’re gonna be sorting out the details over the next few weeks,” Kendall said, adding that they might consider a “derivative” of the drone.

Including US Brings Down Cost

Royal Australian Air Force chief Air Marshal Robert Chipman echoed the secretary’s sentiments, saying that adding another country would accelerate drone production and larger volume would bring down the unit price.

The Australian government has budgeted $600 million to purchase seven Ghost Bat drones in the next two to three years, in addition to six purchased in 2021. 

The aircraft took its maiden flight in February 2021, and three are at various stages of induction into the Royal Australian Air Force.

Loyal Wingman aircraft
Loyal Wingman aircraft. Image: Boeing Australia

Loyal Wingman Role

The aircraft features a reconfigurable nose, allowing it to carry a range of payloads depending upon the mission.

Australia’s air force is looking to fly the platform in tandem with manned aircraft such as the F-35A, F/A-18F Super Hornet, and EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft in air combat, reconnaissance, and surveillance missions.

According to The Drive, the Ghost Bat could also be used in a “protector role” for slow-moving high-value aircraft such as KC-30 tankers and E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning aircraft.

NGAD Fighter Enters Development

Meanwhile, the US Air Force recently announced that the classified sixth-generation fighter had entered the development stage, including the commencement of engineering and manufacturing work.

The aircraft is the centerpiece of the NGAD program, which includes a fleet of drones flying alongside the fighter.

Announcing the development, Kendall said that the fighter, considered the successor of the F-22, would feature new weapons and sensor systems.

He said the aircraft is expected to be ready by the end of the decade. 

Fighter Design Likely Chosen

The air force has been conducting flight tests on an experimental full-scale NGAD fighter model since 2020. 

USAF acquisition chief Will Roper said that the test flights have broken records and that he was “impressed” by the integration of digital technology into the real world.

“What we did was an experimental prototype,” Kendall explained. “We basically had an X plane program which was designed to reduce the risk of some of the key technologies that we would need for a production program.”

The manufacturer hasn’t been revealed yet, but aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia said Kendall’s announcement suggests the air force might have “settled on a single design by a single contractor.”

Among the likely candidates are Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman.

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