The US Air Force has successfully tested an advanced, jet-powered drone called the XQ58-A Valkyrie, that could someday accompany human-piloted fighter jets on missions. The concept is a bit like something we’ve seen in video games, a drone (or swarm of drones) can fight alongside a human pilot, or absorb enemy fire in their place.
The vehicle was developed as a partnership between the Air Force Research Laboratory and Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems as a relatively cheap platform that can fill a electronic warfare, strike, and surveillance role on the battlefield, controlled by a piloted aircraft on its own or as part of a swarm group. It can carry a small payload of bombs, and can use a conventional runway or can be launched via rocket.
The prototype completed its first test flight (of five planned missions) on March 5th over the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, and the Air Force says that it “behaved as expected” over the course of its 76-minute flight. The battery of test flights that it will go through will look at how well the drone’s systems worked, and how well it takes off, flies and lands.
What’s interesting about this particular plan is that it’s an early demonstration of a concept called “loyal wingman.” While this test saw the drone fly on its own — not alongside the fighter aircraft that it’s designed to accompany in the future — the idea is that it could fly alongside a piloted vehicle, which would control it. From there, it could do everything from provide a bit of extra force projection in the air, fly ahead to scout out terrain, or even taking enemy fire in place of its human-piloted companion.
The Valkyrie can carry a small payload of smart bombs, and has a range of just under 2,500 miles. That’s comparable to what existing fighters have — the F-16 Fighting Falcon tops out at just over 2,600 miles, while the F-22 Raptor has a range of just over 1,800 miles. It’s quite a bit slower, however — while the F-16 and F-22 can both can travel at around 1,500 mph, the Valkyrie is designed as a subsonic vehicle, topping out at 652 miles per hour. At an estimated cost of $2-3 million per vehicle (Around the cost of a Patriot missile), it’s enormously cheaper than the fighters that it could accompany, which can cost more than $100 million each. It’s far more cost effective to have something like a drone take a hit than it is for a crewed fighter to.
The “loyal wingman” concept isn’t limited to just fighter jets — the same principle can be applied to land-and-sea-based vehicles as well. The Pentagon has increasingly been looking to add automation into the battlefield over the last couple of years, seeing it as an opportunity to keep soldiers and personnel out of harm’s way. This ranges from everything from automating supply vehicles that operate in hostile territory, to autonomous submarinesthat can gather intelligence or clear naval mines.
The Washington Post says that the Pentagon “has yet to commit to” the XQ58-A Valkyrie, but it is one of a couple of similar systems out there. Last month, Boeing unveiled its own “loyal wingman” vehicle, the Airpower Teaming System, in Australia. Like the Valkyrie, it could be used to escort a fighter jet, or be controlled from the ground. As Tyler Rogoway noted in The Drive, such a vehicle would be able to boost an air force’s capabilities by fielding additional (cheaper) unpiloted vehicles, without having to bring on additional pilots to operate them.