The United States War Department established the first version of the US Air Force on August 1, 1907. The Air Force was largely responsible for winning World War II. During the early years of the Air Force, the military’s strategy was to find strength in numbers with nearly 300,000 combat aircraft. When the US military began developing aircraft, they also started experimenting with unmanned aircraft. Today’s strategy has shifted to embrace the technological acumen of aircraft rather than volume with the Air Force having less than 14,000 active combat aircraft. The rapid advancements in drone technology have made it possible for the US Air Force to scale back on manned aircraft saving billions of dollars and protecting human life.
The Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) is responsible for the advancement of the Air Force’s warfighting technologies. AFRL employs an elite team of researchers and engineers with collaboration from some of the world’s leading aerospace pioneers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. In 2019, AFRL designated a new program called Skyborg. As explained on their website, “Skyborg is an autonomy-focused capability that will enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments. The program will enable airborne combat mass by building a transferable autonomy foundation for a family of layered, unmanned air vehicles.” Skyborg contracted 9 companies to begin working on prototypes. On March 5, 2019, at the Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, Kratos Defense & Security Solutions successfully tested the Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) vehicle the AFRL had contracted from them.
The drone developed by Kratos, called XQ-58 Valkyrie, could completely change the US Air Force’s stake in military aviation superiority. The drone itself measures 28ft 10in long with a 22ft wingspan. It can operate at altitudes between 50-4,500ft with a maximum speed of Mach 0.85. The XQ-58 Valkyrie has a maximum takeoff weight of 6,000lbs with 2 weapons bays that can support a combined 1,199lb payload. Using a rocket assisted launch and parachute recovery system, the Valkyrie does not need a runway for takeoff or landing. It has a range of 2,449miles and has been tested to remain airborne for upwards of 90 minutes. And while each XQ-58 Valkyrie costs $40.8 million, that is still a fraction of the cost of a manned fighter jet like the F15 that costs close to $90 million.
Encrypted with secure data links enabled through Skyborg, the QX-58 Valkyrie is intended to work in tandem with fighter jets such as the F35 and the new F15EX. Final decisions in any combat scenario need to be made by a trained human pilot. But with a drone as a wingman, the irreplaceable human pilot can make the decision to be autonomously carried out by the low cost, replaceable drone. “Embedded within the teamed aircraft, complex algorithms and cutting-edge sensors enable the autonomy to make decisions based on established rules of engagement set by manned teammates,” explains the AFRL.
After some delays because of COVID-19, Kratos and Skyborg returned to the testing grounds at Yuma to put the XQ-58 Valkyrie through its 6th test flight on March 26, 2021. Previous test flights had shown weaknesses in the drone’s landing system, which were rectified by the 4th and 5th test flights. This final test flight was to demonstrate the drone’s payload deployment. Rather than deploying a weapon, the Valkyrie let loose another drone. Built by Area I, the small ALTIUS-600 measures just over 3ft long with a wingspan of just over 8ft. The smaller drone can remain airborne for up to 4 hours with a maximum speed of 276mph. It could serve as a surveillance and reconnaissance drone for the Valkyrie and the accompanying manned fighter jet. The ALTIUS-600 could also be used to deploy small bombs as it has an additional payload capacity of 3-7lbs.
Both drones met all of their mission objectives during the March 26 test flight. The drones being developed under the Skyborg program have come a long way since the unmanned aircraft the US Air Force first investigated more than 100 years ago. These drones are paving the way for the US Air Force to maintain its hold as the most powerful air force in the world while minimizing the risks posed to pilots and lowering expenditures. “Autonomous systems can significantly increase capability and be a force multiplier for the U.S. Air Force,” states the AFRL Skyborg mission objective. “By emphasizing future flexibility, openness, modularity and expandability, Skyborg represents an innovative way for the U.S. to prepare for potential engagements with near peer adversaries at a fraction of the cost of traditional systems.”