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The Air Force’s Unmanned Stealth Future Is Almost Here

XQ-58A Valkyrie
Image: Creative Commons.

A recent Air Force funding award means the Air Force is getting closer to fielding an unmanned, intelligent Skyborg aerial vehicle.

The United States Air Force Fighters and Advanced Aircraft program executive office awarded contract extensions to two aerospace companies, General Atomics and Kratos, to further refine their unmanned aerial vehicle prototypes as a part of the Skyborg Vanguard program. The Air Force awarded the companies $7 million and $13.2 million, respectively.

The Air Force press release announcing the awards explained that these “efforts will advance the integration of the Autonomous Core System (ACS) along with continued operational experimentation thru fiscal year 2022. The vehicles will demonstrate future warfighting capabilities through the teaming of manned and unmanned platforms at large force test events.  The test events will provide critical information and the necessary insight needed to shape a future program.”

Skyborg

Skyborg is one of three U.S. Air Force “Vanguard” programs and attempts to develop an artificially intelligent, unmanned air platform that can fly and fight in tandem with human-crewed aerial vehicles — in essence, a smart drone.

Skyborg drones, flying in contested environments without a pilot in the loop, would detect threats in the air on the ground not just to themselves but also to the human pilots they fly with. Once detected, Skyborgs would evaluate the threat and make decisions on the best course of action. In essence, Skyborg drones would act as human pilot’s eyes and ears and help keep pilots out of danger.

The Contenders

Kratos effort, the XQ-58A Valkyrie is a flexible, stealthy, and runway-independent platform that has an internal bomb bay but can also carry weapons from underwing hardpoints. General Atomics MQ-20 Avenger, on the other hand, is a somewhat larger platform akin to the company’s line of unmanned aerial drones but with some stealthy characteristics like a V-tail and what appears to be a stealthily contoured exhaust nozzle. Compared to its predecessors, the Avenger has a higher range thanks to more fuel-efficient engines.

Postscript

“These contract actions, while tactical in nature, are strategically important to this Vanguard as we continue to discover and learn how we will employ this advance technology in the fight,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Dale White explained. “The team has always been committed to transitioning Skyborg to a program of record, and we’ll be ready in 2023 as the Air Force prepares its FY23 President’s Budget submission early next year.”

Both companies’ Skyborg prototype vehicles are out of their infancy but not yet mature. But with this latest additional funding boost, both vehicles are set to move forward, with their next operational exercise scheduled for the fall of 2021.

XQ-58A Valkyrie

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates the separation of the ALTIUS-600 small unmanned aircraft system in a test at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground test range, Ariz., March 26, 2021. The test was the first time the weapons bay doors have been opened in flight. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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