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By Jamie Freed
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Boeing Co sees mass production of its unmanned, fighter-like jet developed in Australia likely happening by the middle of the decade, an executive said on Tuesday, as it rolled out the first of three prototypes.
"We are expecting middle of the decade, maybe a bit earlier that this will be in production," Shane Arnott, the programme director of Boeing's Airpower Teaming System, told reporters.
He said up to 16 of the Loyal Wingman drones could be teamed with a manned aircraft for missions and it was on track for its first flight by the end of the year.
Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Air Vice-Marshal Catherine Roberts said the Loyal Wingman's role could include carrying weapons in combat and protecting assets like the E-7A Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft as well as being used as a target to shield manned fighter jets such as the F-35A and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
Defence contractors are investing increasingly in autonomous technology as militaries around the world look for a cheaper and safer way to maximise their resources.
The Australian government has invested A$40 million ($25.71 million) in development of the product, which Roberts said had also attracted interest from the United States and United Kingdom as potential future customers.
The Loyal Wingman aircraft is 38 feet long (11.6 metres) and has a 2,000 nautical mile (3,704 kilometre) range and a nose that can be removed to fit various payloads.
It is Australia's first domestically developed combat aircraft since World War II and Boeing's biggest investment in unmanned systems outside the United States.
(Reporting by Jamie Freed; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)