US Loyal Wingman Takes Flight

By Colin Clark

A “loyal wingman” drone designed to work with manned fighters — and take the hit for them if need be — made its first flight on Tuesday.

While Australia and Boeing made the big news last week with their plans to build a loyal wingman drone for the export market, the Air Force Research Lab actually flew a working prototype, specifically designed for the US.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie was built by Kratos, a mid-sized defense firm with big ambitions for the drone market. The plane is designed to be low cost so the US can buy them in large numbers and afford to lose a lot in lieu of expensive manned aircraft crewed by expensively trained human pilots.

The goal is multiple loyal wingmen working with a single manned aircraft, like a huntsman with his hounds: The drones would carry and launch extra weapons, jam enemy radars, scout ahead into danger zones, and if need be deliberately decoy enemy weapons away from their human commander.

The manned aircraft specifically mentioned most often — including by the Boeing-Australian program — is the F-35, since it will be the main frontline plane, using its stealth to penetrate hostile airspace and its sensors to gather the targeting data for the first strike packages.

The loyal wingman concept means the other aircraft can, at least, be controlled by a pilot. In the Valkyrie’s case, the plane’s capabilities range “from the low side of semi-autonomous (operator directed, autopilot stabilized) to the side of semi-autonomous (waypoint nav),” AFRL spokesman Bryan Ripple said in an email.

“The system includes standard interfaces to enable full autonomy for missions where standoff airborne or ground control pilot vehicle interface would be needed.”

“XQ-58A is the first example of a class of UAV that is defined by low procurement and operating costs while providing game changing combat capability,” Doug Szczublewski, AFRL’s XQ-58A program manager, said in a statement.

It took only two-and-half years from contract award to get the first bird up in the air. It flew for 76 minutes. The plane is expected to fly four more times for test to evaluate system functionality, aerodynamic performance, and launch and recovery systems. It’s also designed to be runway independent.

What does runway independent mean in this case?

The aircraft was launched with a rocket assist and recovered with a parachute.

The Valkyrie is part of AFRL‘s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) portfolio. It’s supposed to bring down the cost of  “tactically relevant aircraft,” an AFRL statement explained. “The objectives of the LCAAT initiative include designing and building UAS [Unmanned Air Systems] faster by developing better design tools, and maturing and leveraging commercial manufacturing processes to reduce build time and cost.”

How low cost? The contract was for approximately $40 million, and was a combination of AFRL and Kratos resources. “There is no current AFRL contract option to buy more vehicles, but contract modifications would be contemplated if additional vehicles are determined to be needed for future testing,” Ripple wrote. “Other DoD/Government agencies” could also order vehicles, he noted.

One of the really intriguing bits about this is that this may demonstrate why Kratos, as Breaking D readers will remember, recently bought a company that makes advanced engines for small drones.

If this effort pays off, Kratos may become a much more prominent contractor, building a large number of relatively small, relatively expendable loyal wingmen complete with engines, one of the highest value-added components of modern aircraft.

The Australian Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program is a four-year development program, so it ‘s behind Valkyrie. But the Aussie aircraft is designed to be exportable and is chiefly designed to fly with the F-35, so it could compete with the Kratos plane.

First published by Breaking Defense on March 7, 2019.