Kelley Aerospace of Singapore just unveiled its supersonic Arrow drone: a stealthy, autonomous aircraft capable of flying missions alongside manned jets. This is the latest entry in a long list of new high-performance combat drones known as “Loyal Wingmen” being introduced by countries around the world.

“The Arrow is designed to complement manned aircraft and be a force multiplier in aerial battlefield,” the company explains in an information sheet.

Unlike existing drones like the MQ-9 Reaper, this type are not remotely controlled from the ground but are robotic team members flying themselves.

The sleek Arrow boasts a carbon-fiber shell and is claimed to have a minimal radar and infra-red signature. The maximum takeoff weight of 37,000 pounds is about half that of the manned F-35 Lightning II, and the makers say that it will cost just $9 million to $16 million per aircraft (depending on options) – compared to more like $100 million for the F-35.

Kelley Aerospace says it has already taken more than 100 pre-orders for the Arrow, which will undergo flight testing in the first half if this year.

Arrow takes its place alongside several similar programs. While not all are quite as ambitious – supersonic flight and stealth are extras – all have several things in common: They are low-cost fighters to bulk up numbers on the front line, and are intended to go from drawing board to runway at extraordinary speed compared to the manned aircraft they will be fighting with and against.

In Australia, Boeing’s

Airpower Teaming System loyal wingman carried out its maiden flight at Woomera just last week. The Royal Australian Air Force promptly signed a new contract doubling its order to six aircraft, at about $20m per drone.

In the U.S., the Air Force is pressing ahead with the XQ-58A Valkyrie, its own Loyal Wingman made by Kratos. This is a smaller aircraft with a price goal of just $3m but still flies at over 600 mph with 1,000 pounds of missiles or bombs. The current focus is on operations with manned fighters. In December, a Valkyrie flew in close formation with F-22 and F-35 jets.

This highlights a critical aspect of loyal wingmen: both the pilots that fly alongside them, and the commanders who send them in to action, have to be completely confident that the new drones will perform as intended. Building this trust may be a harder challenge than overcoming technical issues. Historically, U.S. commanders have not trusted or liked unmanned aircraft, and even successful drone programs have often been canceled.

Russia’s version, Grom appears to be still at the concept stage; similarly the state-owned company Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) showed off their Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) the Aero India 2021 exhibition in Bangalore in mockup form. The CATS Warrior will two missiles internally and a sophisticated AESA radar. Meanwhile the U.K.’s RAF has awarded a contract to build its own Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft, described as an ‘autonomous loyal wingman,’ and due to fly in 2023.

In 2019 China displayed the LJ-1 drone, which can act as either a target drone or loyal wingman – the Valkyrie was similarly developed from an existing aerial target simulating a jet fighter. There is little indication how the Chinese project has progressed.

As a rule military aircraft projects progress at a leisurely pace, unfolding over the course of decades. The F-22 Raptor originated in the Advanced Tactical Fighter program of 1981, the first prototype flew in 1997, and achieved full operational capability in 2007, 26 years after conception. The F-35 Lightning II started in the 1994 Common Affordable Lightweight program, the first flew in 2006 and achieved Initial Operational Capability in 2015, with some issues taking further years to fix. Some view the  F-35 as still stuck in testing even now, 26 years on.

Loyal Wingman programs proceed at breakneck speed by comparison. The Valkyrie first flew in 2019, just two and a half years after the initial contract. Boeing’s ATS appeared in mockup form in 2019, with the first flight two years later. The RAF are similarly scheduling two years between contract award and first flight.

With manned aircraft, much of the testing process is necessary for pilot safety. When pushing the envelope of a new aircraft, everything must be done one step at a time, checking and evaluating at each step. Further tests include everything from firing a chicken into the engine to testing in giant environmental chambers to produce extremes of heat and cold, or spraying them with salt water and ice. The situation is different for drones which are seen as ‘attritable’ – meaning losses are acceptable where necessary — or even expendable. They are more like missiles, and safety certification is not the same issue.

No Loyal Wingman is yet in service. As mentioned earlier, the biggest holdup in getting them into service may be establishing their reliability and building up trust with human team members. But given the time to first flight, subsequent generations are likely to come at the pace of smartphones, not fighter jets. New digital design processes like Skunk Work’s StarDrive, which produced the Speed Racer drone in record time, will further compress development times.

There is little doubt that they will be formidable opponents in the air, with lightning-fast reflexes, an ability to track multiple opponents simultaneously and no risk or fatigue, panic or over-confidence. An AI trounced a human pilot 5-0 in simulated engagements run by DARPA last year, and the AI is only going to get better.

The new drones are seen very much as auxiliaries to human pilots in an arrangement known as manned-unmanned teaming. This recalls the game known as Centaur chess in which enjoyed a brief heyday a few years back when human players teamed up with AI to use the strengths of each. But nobody talks about Centaur chess any more: the machines are now too good and we have nothing to add.

You can be my wingman anytime!” Iceman tells rival pilot Maverick at the end of Top Gun.

“B.S.,” replies Maverick. “You can be mine.”

For the present, the drones are still the wingmen.