The Air Force is ready to begin procuring new attritable aircraft at higher volumes under its “Skyborg” test and experimentation program, the service’s top acquisition official said March 27.

Since early 2019, the service has been performing tests and evaluations with a Kratos [KTOS]-made XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned aerial vehicle, co-developed with the Air Force Research Laboratory. The team has been exploring ways to use artificial intelligence technologies to connect the Valkyrie vehicle, or others like it, to tactical fighters as an unmanned, autonomous “wingman” aircraft.

This year, the service is ready to go “beyond experimenting” and start producing aircraft, said Will Roper, the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics in a March 27 media briefing.

“I met with the team last week on Skyborg, and told them to go ahead and accelerate a rapid solicitation as soon as they can,” Roper said. “I told them I don’t even need to see [them]. We’re ready to go beyond experimenting.”

The Skyborg program is one of the Air Force’s three “Vanguard” programs, which are rapid development efforts run through Air Force Material Command meant to demonstrate the validity of emerging technologies. The service has been performing multiple tests with the XQ-58A aircraft, including as part of the recent Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) demonstrations.

Roper said those types of experiments will continue to help the Air Force determine how it can connect smaller, attritable systems with high-end aircraft “to really create conundrums for adversaries.”

“But it’s time to go ahead and get these into some level of production – do a competition, start producing, because to really experiment with attritables, we need them in quantity,” he added.

The goal for Skyborg has been to fund a prototype program in the fiscal year 2022 presidential budget request, and field the platform by 2023. The program is currently being run by the service’s Program Executive Office for Advanced Aircraft at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, which is also directing the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) effort.

The synergy between the NGAD developments and Skyborg will be exciting to watch, Roper noted.

“We envision the next generation of air dominance to be very different from just individual airplanes,” he said. “We view it as a family of systems integrated together by the advanced battle management system, creating that military internet of things that we desperately need. And Skyborg will just be one tool that we add to the quiver that will provide us the ability to have an asset.”

“We can take a ton of risk with it, put it on the leading edge of the battlefield, have it collect data, collect enemy tactics and pass those back without putting people in harm’s way,” he continued. The Air Force would not maintain these drones for as long as its traditional acquisition programs, he noted.

“I think we’ll use them operationally like aircraft, but we’ll procure them like weapons where we’ll have a certain production rate, we’ll use them for training and when they’re too old to be reliable, we’ll just use them as test assets [or] adversary air, and just [phase] them out of the Air Force so that we’re not paying for long-term sustainment,” Roper said.