The U.S. Navy has successfully linked two drone Boeing EA-18G Growlers to a third manned Growler, allowing three aircraft to fly together with only a single pilot.
The EA-18G Growler is an electronic warfare variant of the venerable F/A-18F Super Hornet. These carrier based aircraft usually come equipped with a combination of jamming pods and traditional ordnance. Most of the electronic warfare suite on the Growler is housed in the platform’s wingtips and where the 20mm cannon usually rides in the Super Hornet.
The end result is an aircraft that can accompany Super Hornets throughout just about every facet of a combat mission, providing detection and target jamming against surface to air threats. This allows the fourth-generation Super Hornet to operate more safely within contested airspace, which would normally require the use of a stealth platform like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
“Three Growlers were modified to support an open architecture processor and advanced networking, which allowed for two of the Growlers to be transformed into unmanned air system surrogate aircraft,” Boeing said in a press release.
In this first-of-its-kind experiment, two specially equipped “drone” Growlers were linked to third aircraft in four flights, testing 21 different mission sets over all. The “drone” Growlers did have pilots in the cockpit who handled the takeoff and landing, but all of the flying between was done via the unmanned systems.
“This demonstration allows Boeing and the Navy the opportunity to analyze the data collected and decide where to make investments in future technologies,” said Tom Brandt, Boeing’s Manned-Unmanned Teaming demonstration lead. “It could provide synergy with other U.S. Navy unmanned systems in development across the spectrum and in other services.”
All four flights were conducted out of Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. The successful tests could pave the way for Growlers and other similar aircraft to serve as force multipliers in the future. Unmanned fourth generation platforms could fly alongside manned fourth and fifth generation fighters, extending sensor ranges, providing more ordnance, and even protecting the manned aircraft from attack.
“This technology allows the Navy to extend the reach of sensors while keeping manned aircraft out of harm’s way,” Brandt said. “It’s a force multiplier that enables a single aircrew to control multiple aircraft without greatly increasing workload. It has the potential to increase survivability as well as situational awareness.”
This effort coincided with a number of other programs meant to maximize the effectiveness of America’s existing air frames. The U.S. Marine Corps has also had success engaging targets with their HIMARS rocket platforms via targeting data provided by nearly F-35s, as one example.
These unmanned fighter platforms, alongside low-cost, high-capability drones like the XQ-58A Valkyrie, may one day become the wing men pilots rely on in the fight.