LE BOURGET, France — Things are looking up for Kratos Defense’s XQ-58A Valkyrie drone. Fresh off its second flight, the U.S. Air Force is considering buying 20-30 aircraft for further experimentation, the service’s acquisition executive said Monday.
“I’m now looking at ways to do that and what the cost will be,” Will Roper told reporters on the sidelines of Paris Air Show, saying that the Air Force is looking for prototyping funds that it can access for a rapid procurement of those aircraft.
The XQ-5A Valkyrie is an “attritable” drone, the word the military uses for an asset that can be reused but is cheap enough that a commander could use them aggressively and would expect — and be comfortable with — some losses in combat.
What sets Valkyrie apart is not only its low price point, which Kratos estimates will be $2 million per copy in a production run of 100 jets or more, but also the aircraft’s near supersonic speed, long endurance and maneuverability, which could make it a formidable partner for manned fighter jets.
Once the Air Force buys additional Valkyrie drones, the idea would be to pair those unmanned aircraft with manned fighter jets.
“Depending on what comes out of that campaign, the idea would be to look and do a program of record. You’d want to start spiraling the development,” Roper said.
A decision on starting a program could be made as soon as fiscal 2021, and from there it would be only two to three years to begin production and fielding aircraft, he said. “I am really pleased we’re getting strong buy-in, strong appetite at the pointy end for attritable systems by our pilots.”
Roper’s comments come after another milestone for the Valkyrie — the second flight demo, held June 11 at Yuma Proving Grounds. According to a Kratos release, the aircraft completed unspecified objectives over a 71 minute test.
“With this most recent milestone, the readiness of the XQ-58A is accelerating and increasing the near-term application opportunities for the system,” said Steve Fendley, the company’s president of its unmanned systems division. “I am extremely proud of our development, production, and test teams who continue to deliver successful results, in record time, on our comprehensive system level efforts — rare within the aerospace and defense industry."
The Air Force Research Laboratory is partnered with Kratos to develop Valkyrie through the Low Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator program, the service’s effort to field a “Loyal Wingman”-style drone that can be flown alongside a fighter jet or other combat aircraft in manned-unmanned teams.
But Roper has alluded to even more ambitious plans for Valkyrie or other attritable drones like it.
Not only does the Air Force want to add sensors and weapons to Valkyrie, but it wants to implant artificial intelligence in the drone so that it can train and learn alongside pilots, eventually growing in skill and becoming able to respond independently to threats.
Roper calls that effort “Skyborg” and in May told Defense News that the service was considering how to incorporate it with manned fighters like the F-35 and the F-15EX.
“I don’t want this to just be a laboratory project that lives and dies there in a petri dish. I want this to become a program,” he told reporters in March. “I want to see real, operational demonstrations within a couple years. And I will push them to be faster than that.”