A "loyal wingman" drone is meant to be anywhere from a "0.5" to full 1-1 replacement of a wingman that would otherwise have a human pilot, and would therefore perform all the traditional duties of a wingman, namely, provide additional cover, firepower and most importantly of all and the whole point of having a wingman really, situational awareness. So on the face of it a drone "loyal wingman" would operate no differently.
That said there are some advantages to why they want to use drones:
- first and foremost, no human loss. This is inherently important on its own despite some so-called self-sabotaging "progressives" that have managed to get themselves installed on big platforms by mega-corporations running directly counter to their interests simply by existing insisting that we need to put more human lives in harms way in order to prevent war because the education system has clearly failed us and has been substituted for memes hijacked by same exact said mega-corporations to literally brainwash the populace into doing their bidding (yes I am completely serious)
- inherently far superior situational awareness to the point where what a human can accomplish, even with all the MFDs in the world, is a joke. And with that, the ability to engage and persecute (or avoid) targets near-instantly to such a degree that stealth is simply of reduced importance and perhaps even unnecessary.
- greater flexibility of the manned aircraft, since said pilot now has far greater depth of options - so great that we're still exploring how deep that actually is.
- and yes if necessary the "loyal wingman" drone can expend itself either in the prosecution of a mission or to protect the human pilot and plane, although this isn't nearly as flexible as some people might think. Even cheap unmanned drones are an investment of resources, and if the craft were that expendable you might as well just hard-integrate the warhead onto it and make it an official suicide drone/cruise missile.
That said it's not devastating to lose one - unless the logistics train is such that a replacement might be days or weeks away, in which case that's either days or weeks you're grounded on sorties or you take a great risk flying them. Losing a loyal wingman drone is akin to losing a portion of a wing or a weapons store - your aircraft is inherently compromised even if the actual airframe itself remains undamaged.
Loyal wingman drones are intended to be semi-autonomous or fully autonomous although still networked to pilot commands. Not all LWDs are meant to be carried by the manned aircraft - only the smallest ones can be captive-carried by an F-15 which, mind you, is one of the biggest true tactical warplanes around right now.
Timeline for operational use is "as soon as they perfect them for operational use."