First Flight for the Low-Cost 'Loyal Wingman'

 - March 8, 2019, 4:42 AM
The XQ-58A Valkyrie made its first flight on March 5 at Yuma in Arizona. (photo: Air Force Research Laboratory)

On March 5 the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie undertook its first flight at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. The inaugural flight lasted for 76 minutes and was achieved around two and a half years after the XQ-58A development contract was awarded to the company in July 2016 (as the LCASD—Low Cost Attritable Strike UAS Demonstration). The flight-test campaign currently envisions five flights in two phases that will evaluate functionality and aerodynamic performance, as well as launch and recovery techniques.

The Valkyrie program is a partnership between Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems—best known for its aerial target systems—and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). The air vehicle has been developed as a demonstrator for a low-cost, runway-independent demonstrator for a UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) that can operate as “loyal wingmen” to aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35, or in swarms controlled by a reconnaissance asset.

“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,” said Doug Szczublewski, AFRL’s XQ-58A program manager. The program is part of the laboratory’s LCAAT (Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology) initiative that seeks to reduce development time and build costs by introducing better design tools and by looking at the commercial industry for improved manufacturing processes.

Reducing acquisition costs to figures perhaps as low as $2 million apiece allows air vehicles to be acquired in large numbers and, while intended as a reusable asset, a certain level of attrition in the force during operations becomes far more acceptable and sustainable than with more expensive vehicles.

Originally designated XQ-222 by Kratos, the XQ-58A is a high-subsonic vehicle of around 29-foot (8.8-meter) length with stealthy features. It is powered by a single jet engine and has a range in the region of 3,000 miles. It has two internal weapon bays for a 500-pound (227-kg) warload that would typically comprise two GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs. Underwing hardpoints are also envisioned. The air vehicle is launched from a stand with rocket assistance and recovered by parachute, freeing it from reliance on a runway.

Kratos also offers the UTAP-22 as a UCAV, a smaller design based on the BQM-167A target drone. In late 2015, the company demonstrated the UTAP-22's use as a co-operative UCAV flying with an AV-8B Harrier II of the U.S. Marine Corps, and also in swarming tests with multiple UTAP-22s. During these trials the UCAVs operated both autonomously and in semi-autonomous modes, demonstrating independent weapon release and subsequent formation rejoining. Such capabilities would be central to the larger XQ-58A's intended operational application.