The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, built by California-based Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, flew for the first time over Yuma, Arizona on March 5, 2019, the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio announced.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator carried out its second flight at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, on June 11. Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, the low-cost demonstrator is being developed as part of the Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) program, which is intended to break the `escalating cost trajectory of tactically relevant aircraft’.

The XQ-58 Valkyrie on June 11, 2019 took off for its second test flight over Yuma, Arizona. The 29-feet-long, jet-powered drone “successfully completed all test objectives during a 71-minute flight,” the Air Force Research Laboratory announced.

The Valkyrie’s first flight took place in March 2019. The Air Force and California drone-maker Kratos plan to conduct five test sorties during this phase of the XQ-58’s development.

The Valkyrie is part of a wider Air Force effort to acquire fast, stealthy, armed drones that can fly and fight alongside manned fighters.

While the Valkyrie program develops one type of wingman drone, the broader Skyborg program is working on the hardware and software for integrating manned and unmanned fighters.

A new version of the Air Force’s F-35A stealth fighter, as well as the heavily upgraded version of the F-15 that the flying branch hopes to acquire, both could function as flight leads for the service’s wingman drones.

The Air Force is in discussions with Boeing and Lockheed respectively to modify their F-15EX and F-35A Block 4 fighters to accommodate the datalinks and processors from the Skyborg effort.

The Air Force eventually will fold the subsonic XQ-58 into the Skyborg program. The Air Force plans to test wingman drones in 2019 and 2020 “with the hope of having an aircraft ready by 2023”. For example, take a typical four-aircraft formation and replace it with an F-15EX and three Valkyries.

Pilots and crew in manned planes and controllers on the ground both could direct the wingman drones. But the unmanned aerial vehicles themselves could end up being highly autonomous.

According to Kratos, the XQ-58’s capability “ranges from the low side of semi-autonomous (operator directed, autopilot stabilized) to the side of semi-autonomous (waypoint nav). The system includes standard interfaces to enable full autonomy capabilities.” Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in a release.

“We can take risk with some systems to keep others safer,” Roper said. “We can separate the sensor and the shooter. Right now they’re collocated on a single platform with a person in it. In the future, we can separate them out, put sensors ahead of shooters, put our manned systems behind the unmanned. There’s a whole playbook.”

The U.S. Air Force in early March 2019 revealed a prototype for stealthy wingman drone that could accompany manned warplanes into combat.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, built by California-based Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, flew for the first time over Yuma, Arizona on March 5, 2019, the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio announced.

The XQ-58’s first flight signals an expansion of international efforts to develop unmanned aerial vehicles that can fly and fight in mixed formations with traditional, manned warplanes.

Boeing’s Australian subsidiary on Feb. 27, 2019 unveiled its so-called “Airpower Teaming System,” a 38-foot-long, jet-powered drone that Boeing said could carry weapons and sensors and fly as far as 2,000 miles—all while being more affordable than a $100-million manned jet.

Boeing developed the new drone in cooperation with the Australian military. After further development, the Royal Australian Air Force could acquire the UAV to quickly and cheaply add firepower to its roughly 100-strong fighter fleet and six E-7 radar planes.

“The Boeing Airpower Teaming System is designed to team with a wide range of existing military aircraft from fighters to commercial derivative aircraft,” said Ashlee Erwin, a Boeing spokesperson.

“The idea of a robot wingman is that it can keep pace with manned planes, but be tasked out for parts of the mission that you wouldn’t send a human teammate to do,” Peter W. Singer, author of Wired for War said.

Beside Australia, China and Japan also are working on wingman drones. A mock-up or prototype of China’s 30-feet-long Dark Sword drone first appeared in public in an undated photo that circulated on-line in mid-2018.

Japan revealed its own “Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft” wingman drone concept in a technology roadmap that Aviation Week first published in late 2016.

Kratos’s 28-feet-long XQ-58 is similar to the Boeing Airpower Teaming System UAV in size, shape and concept. AFRL and Kratos are developing the Valkyrie drone under the auspices of the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology program.

The XQ-58 program aims to “break the escalating cost trajectory of tactically-relevant aircraft,” AFRL stated. “The objectives of the LCAAT initiative include designing and building UAS faster by developing better design tools and maturing and leveraging commercial manufacturing processes to reduce build time and cost.”

The “runway-independent” — that is, catapult-launched — Valkyrie “behaved as expected and completed 76 minutes of flight time” on its first sortie, AFRL stated. “The time to first flight took a little over 2.5 years from contract award. The XQ-58A has a total of five planned test flights in two phases with objectives that include evaluating system functionality, aerodynamic performance and launch and recovery systems.”

The implications are huge for U.S. air power. “If you team up a bunch of these aircraft with an F-35 or an F-22 or some of our surveillance assets, you’d basically be able to cover more space at a lower cost point,” Bill Baron, manager of the LCAA project, said at a 2017 conference.

Dan Ward, a former U.S. Air Force officer who has written several books about weapons-development, explained all the ways the Pentagon could botch the development of a potentially important new class of drone.

“The most likely way to mess this up is in the beginning of the project,” commentd Ward. “If the Pentagon launches a big new program with a start-from-scratch, single-step-to-capability program plan and adopts the usual spare-no-expense, take-your-time mindset … it’ll end up taking longer, costing more and doing less than promised.”

“Same thing if they try to pack too much into the system and allow complexity to get out of control,” Ward added. The Air Force should experiment with wingman drones, keep them cheap, keep them simple and remind itself that it’s not the only country working on this kind of UAV.

Wingman drones are coming. And they could change aerial warfare for any country that acquires them.

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