By Stephen Losey
FARNBOROUGH, England — Recent successful flights of two autonomous XQ-58A Valkyrie drones show the Air Force’s Skyborg program has proven itself and could be ready to start evolving its capabilities into new systems, a Kratos Defense and Security Solutions executive said.
“This is getting to the end of the Skyborg program, is where we are,” Jeffrey Herro, senior vice president for business development in Kratos’ unmanned systems division, said in an July 18 interview with Defense News at the Farnborough Air Show in England. “And then it will morph into other programs.”
Kratos’ Valkyrie drones have carried out flight tests before as part of the Air Force’s Skyborg program, an artificial intelligence-driven wingman that had its first flight test in a drone in April 2021.
Herro said the most recent flights differed from previous tests, though he would not specify exactly how.
“We definitely were looking at envelope expansion,” Herro said when asked if these flights entailed testing more advanced capabilities.
Herro also would not say where the tests took place or exactly when, aside from saying they took place within the last two months, and that they were successful. Kratos declined to say exactly how many flights occurred, aside from saying two Valkyries were involved, and there was a series of tests.
Skyborg will likely be wound down and the capabilities it has proven will feed into new systems for the Air Force in the near future, Herro said — possibly within a year.
“The future is here,” he said. “The Skyborg program has progressed to a place where the things that they’ve learned from it will almost assuredly be applied in a future and morphed program. What they have learned will definitely inform the follow-on programs to Skyborg.”
The Air Force in recent months has intensified its focus on teaming autonomous unmanned aircraft up with piloted fighters, with Secretary Frank Kendall calling it one of his top priorities. Kendall said he envisioned teams of about five autonomous drones — what the Air Force now refers to as collaborative combat aircraft — flying alongside F-35s or the Next Generation Air Dominance platform.
Lockheed Martin said this month it’s eyeing a mix of expendable drone wingmen and more advanced autonomous systems for the U.S. Air Force to team up with its manned fighters. The service could fly the expendable drones in as soon as three years, the vice president and general manager of the company’s advanced development programs division, known as Skunk Works, said July 11.
Drone wingmen that are ‘attritable’ if not expendable
Skyborg’s recent successes will likely help shape the Air Force’s development of these autonomous drone wingmen, whether the service decides to use Valkyries or other unmanned aircraft, Herro said.
Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter told reporters at the Pentagon last month that the service is trying to move beyond demonstrations of the manned-unmanned teaming concept and field a platform that could serve in this role.
Herro said recent comments from Kendall have shown the service has “recognized the fiscal reality” that its drone wingmen will have to be “attritable” — a term the Air Force uses to describe an aircraft that is not quite expendable, but inexpensive enough that if one is lost on a mission it is not overwhelming for the service.
He pointed to Kendall’s recent comments to Breaking Defense at the Royal International Air Tattoo that after initially exploring the idea of autonomous drones to fly with B-21 Raider bombers, the service concluded it wasn’t cost-effective and scrapped the idea.
Herro said Kratos’ work on Skyborg with its Valkyrie has proven it is feasible to create an autonomous, unmanned system that the service could afford to have shot down.
“And if you lose it, you did not break the bank,” Herro said. “That’s the important part. But you can still accomplish the mission set, by and large,” and more elaborate, expensive systems are not put at risk.
The basic version of each autonomous Valkyrie would likely cost between $3 million and $5 million apiece, he said, but as capabilities are added to to allow it to carry out a specific mission — such as strike capability, electronic warfare or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — the price could as much as double. Herro predicted the per-unit cost would not top $10 million.
If the Air Force decides to move forward on its manned-unmanned teaming concept, Kratos could start ramping up its production of Valkyries immediately, Herro said. Kratos studies show the company would likely be able to produce 25 Valkyries at first, but within about three years could ramp up its production to anywhere from 250 to 500 annually.