On Jul. 10, 2018 head of U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Maj. Gen. William Cooley, disclosed at an Air Force Association event that the XQ-58A Valkyrie will enter flight testing this autumn.
Built by target drone maker Kratos, the XQ-58A embodies one approach to the AFRL’s concept of a “Loyal Wingman”, a low-cost, unmanned aircraft that could expand the combat capacity of a dwindling fleet of manned fighters and bombers without busting the service’s budget.
According Cooley the Valkyrie “has a great deal of interest” within the USAF. “The basic idea is can we make a capable combat aircraft very low cost by using modern manufacturing techniques and drive the cost as low as possible,” he explained.
As reported by Flight Global AFRL officials launched the XQ-58A under the low cost attritable strike demonstrator (LCASD) programme. The use of “attritable” term was intentional, Cooley points out. The AFRL’s programme managers in fact wanted to make it clear the drone is not disposable. If such a system were fielded, the goal would be to reuse the aircraft as much as possible, but losing the losing aircraft to accidents or hostile fire would be financially tolerable.
Noteworthy this approach stands in contrast not only to highly capable manned aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35, but also to previous concepts for a highly capable — and expensive — unmanned combat air vehicle.
The XQ-58A is 30ft long with a 27ft wingspan. It will be able to carry a 600lb payload into combat.
The Valkyrie follows a program called Have Raider, a series of AFRL experiments undertaken in 2015 and 2017 where Lockheed’s Skunk Works division adapted the controls of an F-16 to fly fully autonomously, although a safety pilot was present for the demonstrations. In the second series of tests, the autonomous F-16 responded by itself to a pop-up target, identifying and responding to the new threat without human involvement.
If the USAF moves forward with a Loyal Wingman, one option could be taking retired combat aircraft, such as F-16s and B-1s, updating their computers with autonomous software, and returning the stored aircraft to combat as unmanned partners for manned aircraft. But AFRL seems to prefer taking the approach exemplified by the XQ-58A.
“Potentially it may make more sense to build on a programme that we’ve been advancing for a number of years and that’s the low cost attritable aircraft,” Cooley says. “The XQ-58A is the first step.”
Photo credit: U.S. DoD
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