The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is “eagerly anticipating” the fourth flight test of the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie stealth unmanned aircraft system (UAS) “in the near future,” AFRL spokesman Bryan Ripple told Defense Daily on Jan. 10.
The U.S. Air Force (USAF) has reserved about $54 million in fiscal 2020 science-and-technology and experimentation funds for the service’s Skyborg initiative that is testing the potential value of an artificial-intelligence (AI)-driven, attritable “wingman” for manned aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin F-35. AFRL has performed three test flights related to Skyborg with the 30-foot-long XQ-58A, which has a cruise speed of more than .7 Mach and a maximum range of about 3,000 nautical miles, according to Kratos, which has planned for five test flights by early this year.
The Air Force has said that the aircraft will be relatively low price, $3 million for the first 99 and $2 million after that.
The service is considering buying 20 to 30 XQ-58A aircraft as early as fiscal year 2021. Kratos CEO Eric DeMarco told investors in November that the company may receive a “substantial” Valkyrie order within 90 days of enactment of fiscal 2020 defense appropriations.
On Oct. 9, as part of Skyborg, the Valkyrie held its third flight test in the Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstration (LCASD) program at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz.
“High surface winds and a malfunction of the vehicle’s provisional flight test recovery system resulted in a mishap after landing which damaged the aircraft,” AFRL said, but the aircraft “executed a perfect launch and met 56 of 56 baseline test points, plus two additional test points with excess fuel remaining after completion of the mission” in the 90-minute flight,” according to Kratos.
“After successful completion of the flight, the recovery parachute system worked flawlessly, and the aircraft descended nominally under the canopy system,” Kratos said in a statement on Oct. 10.
“In final descent, the prototype cushion system, which was employed for the initial test series but is not intended for ultimate operational use, suffered an anomaly resulting in the aircraft sustaining damage upon touchdown,” according to the company. “The XQ-58A Valkyrie, like all Kratos’ heritage drones and Kratos’ high performance jet target drones, are designed to be quickly repaired and reused if damage is sustained after performing operational missions. The Valkyrie has been recovered, and the damage has been initially evaluated and determined to be fully repairable. Kratos plans to address the cushion system prior to Flight 4 and complete its test flight series with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) while continuing to execute with its other Valkyrie customers.”
“Based on the flights performed to date and the resulting data generated, we do not need to revise any of the airborne control systems, which is amazing for any newly developed system, but especially so for UAS,” said Steve Fendley, president of Kratos’ unmanned systems division.
Ripple said on Jan. 10 that the company and AFRL have resolved the cushion system issue.
Last May, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) briefed industry on the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program to enable manned aircraft to control semi-autonomous, AI-equipped strike fighter aircraft. “High-performance, dog fighting capability” with ACE may become operational in 2023, Kratos said in an investors briefing last month.
In that briefing, Kratos said that the Valkyrie is a “cost-effective way to augment the USAF’s fleet with additional quantities, firepower and sensors by serving as a Loyal Wingman.”
“Valkyrie has been approved for potential marketing to the U.K. [United Kingdom], Australia, Japan and Canada,” according to the briefing.
In addition to the AFRL and DARPA efforts, Australia is undertaking a Loyal Wingman program, while the United Kingdom is looking at such a manned-unmanned concept through its Project Mosquito. The French and German governments are examining the concept as well for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program. The concepts may involve a swarm of lighter unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) working in tandem with fighter aircraft.
In November, Boeing Australia announced the first flight of a subscale test jet aircraft for its Airpower Teaming System (ATS).
Boeing said that ATS will be 38 feet long, able to fly more than 2,000 nautical miles, and will integrate sensors to support a variety of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, tactical early warning and other missions.
“Flying at speeds of up to 300 kilometers/hour, our team tested the jets’ abilities to safely communicate and coordinate with each other,” according to Boeing. “Next, we’ll try more complex maneuvers, increasing teaming formation numbers and more complex missions.”
Enabled by AI, ATS is a “modular and highly customizable aircraft with fighter-like flight capabilities,” according to Boeing, which envisions ATS as enabling manned-unmanned teaming in which the unmanned system could “complement and support a specific threat-based mission.”
ATS is part of Boeing Australia’s effort to advance autonomous systems technology to prepare for the first flight of the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Loyal Wingman prototype this year. The Australian government announced the Loyal Wingman effort last February.
Loyal Wingman is to be a reduced radar cross section (RCS) UCAV flying at high-subsonic or low-supersonic speeds and providing support to manned fighters via the UCAV’s weapons and data sharing.
Kratos declined to say whether it is competing for or involved in Australia’s Loyal Wingman program, but U.S. officials have said that they do not believe the company is participating.
Such AI-enabled aircraft figure into defense planning internationally.
“AI and its enabling technologies are at the center of the developing power competition between the United States and China,” former U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wrote in an Atlantic Council study on AI last month. “Establishing and sustaining U.S. leadership in AI is critical for defending the United States and its allies, as well as maintaining the liberal values and norms on which the wider international geopolitical system is based.”