Skyborg project: Why the Valkyrie UAV is a gamechanger for the US Air Force

The United States government has instituted the “Skyborg” program to ensure its warfare capabilities are now designed for a new kind of combat operation.

XQ-58A Valkyrie Unmanned Aerial Vehicle(UAV) (Photo Courtesy: US Air Force)

As part of its futuristic drone programme, the United States Air Force is set to get the XQ-58A Valkyrie Unmanned Aerial Vehicle(UAV).

The long-range strike force drone is being developed by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions in collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

The drone can be deployed for reconnaissance as well as combat missions and critically serves as an unmanned escort or a "wingman" for a fighter aircraft operated by a pilot in the air dynamically changing the rules of warfare.

(Photo Courtesy: US Air Force)

(Photograph:AFP)

High-subsonic unmanned aerial vehicle

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) had given Kratos a $40.8m cost-share contract to develop the super drones back in July 2016.

The first test flight by the company was performed in March 2019 and the second in June 2019 and in January 2020 the UAV stayed in the air for 60 minutes successfully demonstrating its capability while landing with parachutes.

The high-subsonic unmanned aerial vehicle possesses a maximum launch weight of 2,722kg and a payload of 544kg with a Mach speed of 0.72 and has maximum range of 5,556km.

(Photo Courtesy: United States Air Force)

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Robotic wingmen

The US Air Force is betting heavily on autonomous drones which will help empower "robotic wingmen" for pilots in combat. 

The United States government has instituted the “Skyborg” program to ensure its warfare capabilities are now designed for a new kind of combat operation.

The US intends to put the uncrewed “loyal wingman” for human pilots into operation. The Air Force has already tested a drone built by Kratos named the UTAP-22 Mako.

 (Photo Courtesy: Boeing)

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Collaborative missions with manned aircraft

UTAP22 is an unmanned tactical aerial platform developed by the Kratos Unmanned Systems Division of Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, in partnership with the United States Air Force (USAF).

According to the company, it is developed specifically for tactical and collaborative missions with manned aircraft.

The tactical drone was first unveiled in December 2015 at the US Navy test range in California

It reportedly has the ability to conduct "collaborative airborne operations" with an AV-8B Harrier fighter aircraft. The UTAP22 tactical unmanned aircraft was officially named Mako by Kratos in May 2017, company said.

(Photograph:AFP)

Skyborg

The USAF’s Skyborg autonomy core system (ACS) was tested aboard a UTAP22 vehicle during a test flight at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, under a Milestone 1 of the Autonomous Attritable Aircraft Experimentation (AAAx) campaign in April 2021.

The UTAP22 runs at 0.91 Mac speed and can reportedly stay in the air for a maximum of three hours.

The US intends to grow its Skyborg programme as the "brain" of the USAF with a family of drones designed to take on the enemy in the air with minimum human intervention.

(Photograph:AFP)

MQ-25 Stingray

The US Navy has already institued the  MQ-25 Stingray with its ability to carry out its primary aerial refuelling mission - a gamechanger in a combat situation when there is a need for an aircraft to stay in the air as long as possible.

As defence forces around the world use drones to perform several tasks, this new innovation in the form of MQ-25 Stingray is set to create a new dynamic Air Force with giant refuel planes no longer needed in long haul mission overground.

The MQ-25 will assume the tanking role currently performed by F/A-18s, allowing for better use of the combat strike fighters and helping extend the range of the Carrier Air Wing, Boeing said in a statement.

(Photo Courtesy: Boeing)

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Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration

It is not the first time the US Navy demonstrated its air-to-air capability. In 2015, Northrop Grumman Corporation and the US Navy had successfully demonstrated fully autonomous aerial refuelling (AAR) with the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) aircraft.

During the probe and drogue AAR demonstration, the X-47B performed a close formation flight rendezvous with an Omega K-707 tanker.  

Northrop Grumman had begun developing AAR technology for both Navy and Air Force application nearly a decade ago, pioneering a "hybrid" approach that integrates both GPS and infrared imaging to enhance navigational precision and hedge against GPS disruption, the company had said in a statement.

(Photo Courtesy: Northrop Grumman Corporation)

(Photograph:AFP)

Carrier Air Wing

Initial UCAS-D flight testing began in 2012 using a manned Learjet as a surrogate for the X-47B. The successful proof-of-concept flights demonstrated the overall feasibility of the X-47B AAR system and helped refine its navigation, command and control, and infrared sensor processing components.

The experiment allowed the US Navy to integrate standard missions like aerial refueling and operate seamlessly with manned aircraft as part of the Carrier Air Wing.

The Navy intends to have the Stingray's on its battleships and reportedly plans to buy 72 pieces costing $13 billion. According to the Pentagon, three MQ-25 aerial refuelling drone's are set to be complete by August 2024.

According to the US Navy, it will integrate the Stingray's on its carriers in 2024 with the high tech drone capable of loading 15,000 pounds of fuel at 500 nautical miles.

(Photo Courtesy: Boeing)

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