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The Indian Air Force (IAF) is setting its sights on the future of aerial combat with its ambitious “Loyal Wingman” program. This initiative seeks to procure a fleet of 200-250 unmanned, semi-autonomous aircraft designed to fly alongside manned fighter jets.

Local powerhouse Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is spearheading this program, proposing the development of two distinct classes of these uncrewed combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) in collaboration with a private sector company.

These “loyal wingmen” will be much more than mere flying companions. They will be equipped to perform a diverse range of tasks, including offensive and defensive operations in support of manned fighter jets.

The UCAVs will extend their capabilities beyond combat duties. They will be able to perform critical functions such as gathering intelligence, deploying jamming technology to disrupt enemy communications, and acting as communication relays to extend the operational reach of manned aircraft. Additionally, they can carry supplementary weaponry, allowing them to engage targets directly under the command of the manned fighter pilot or operate autonomously.

The IAF is fully backing this program, recognizing its potential to revolutionize air combat tactics. While fully operational UCAVs are expected to be deployed by 2028-2030, development is progressing rapidly. A scaled-down prototype is already undergoing testing, and a full-scale version is anticipated within the next two years for further comprehensive testing and refinement.

HAL is actively refining concepts previously showcased, incorporating advancements in design and functionality. Crucially, engine development and other critical systems are being built using internal HAL funds, with the IAF likely contributing additional resources to expedite the program’s progress.

The IAF’s “Loyal Wingman” program represents a significant leap forward in Indian military aviation. The deployment of these uncrewed, semi-autonomous aircraft promises to transform aerial warfare, enhancing the IAF’s capabilities and ensuring a strategic edge in the years to come.

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