On its static display at the International Aerospace Exhibition ILA in Berlin, Airbus is showcasing its new collaborative combat aircraft (CCA) concept named ‘Wingman’.

Airbus describes its new uncrewed aerial system (UAS) as a “fighter-type drone” that will be controlled by a pilot in a combat aircraft, such as a Eurofighter, which will perform tactical options in support of the combat aircraft within a hybrid structure.

The Wingman model showcases all of the anticipated capabilities required in a CCA concept such as low observability, the integration of various armaments, advanced sensors, connectivity and teaming solutions.

Model of the Airbus Wingman CCA system at ILA Berlin. Credit: Patrick Atack.

Over the past decade, major players in the global UAV market have directed significant attention and investment towards expanding the mission set of UAV platforms beyond the tradition ISR and precision ground strike roles.

Autonomy and artificial intelligence are evolving aerial warfare whereby a multi-role combat aircraft is supported by CCAs as part of a man-uncrewed teaming structure.

This hybrid form of aerial warfare “seeks to enable human operators to leverage the inherent benefits of both manned and unmanned platforms simultaneously, thus creating a multi-role and adaptive airborne force,” according to GlobalData intelligence.

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“The German Air Force has expressed a clear need for an unmanned aircraft flying with and supporting missions of its [crewed] fighter jets before the Future Combat Air System will be operational in 2040,” said Michael Schoellhorn, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space.

Similarly, the US Air Force are eager to deploy the same teaming structure under its Next Generation Aerial Dominance programme, in which a fifth- or sixth-generation aircraft will operate alongside CCAs, for which the service has lately narrowed down its options to two vendors: Anduril and General Atomics.

A big leap

“Not all of what is on display may find its way into series production,” Airbus stipulated. “In this aspect, the model on display at ILA Berlin will serve as a foundation and catalyst to drive the design requirements for each generation of the Wingman.”

The Wingman is essentially a sixth-generation system that is currently at a formative stage in the design process.

Moreover, this concept is highly technical with numerous capabilities – more than there have been in any other single military UAS Airbus has previously delivered. In fact, the closest such concept is the Eurodrone, a fifth-generation system that recently completed its preliminary design review that validated the physical and digital concept.