Air Force Tests New “Loyal Wingman” Sidekick Drone for Combat

The aircraft has flown just a week after Boeing introduced an unmanned sidekick of its own.

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Air Force Research Lab

The U.S. Air Force is trying out a new sidekick.

Along with contractor Kratos Defense, the service test-flew the XQ-58A Valkyrie on March 5 at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. The prototype drone, meant to test the viability of unmanned “sidekick” drones for manned combat planes, got its test flight in just a week after Boeing Australia unveiled its own “Loyal Wingman” unmanned aircraft.

Announced in July 2016, the Valkyrie was designed by Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, a manufacturer of target drones for the U.S. Armed Forces. Designed to mimic enemy jet fighters, Kratos’s target aircraft are big as far as drones go. Evidently, it was a short leap from a drone pretending to be a fighter to a drone that has some capabilities of a combat jet. Here's a short video from Kratos' drone factory:

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According to the U.S. Air Force, the XQ-58A was a joint effort between Kratos and the Air Force Research Laboratory under the latter’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) program. As Popular Mechanics noted in 2016 when the development contract was announced, the Valkyrie “will be capable of Mach 0.9 speeds for short periods of time, have a 1,500-nautical-mile range, and be able to carry at least two GBU-39 small diameter bombs. It will feature "extreme agility" for missile avoidance. The LCASD will also be relatively inexpensive: $3 million each for the first 99, $2 million each if you buy more than 100.”

The XQ-58A flew for a total of 76 minutes, performing exactly as expected. Five test flights are anticipated. The contract for the Valkyrie specified a drone of “capable of low-altitude ‘nap of the earth’ flying, high-altitude cruise, defensive counter-air maneuvers, offensive counter-air maneuvers, and suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses.” Here's video of the aircraft in flight:

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One feature the Air Force mentions that was in the original requirement: the XQ-58A is “runway independent.” Kratos's target drones are launched from the back of trucks and ships at sea. Once their mission is over, they pop parachutes and float back to earth for recovery. This means that the XQ-58A (or whatever aircraft ends up being developed from it) could be launched from a convoy of trucks driven away from sprawling air bases, both protecting from them from attack and freeing up the runway for manned aircraft.

The XQ-58A appears stealthy, with the rear exhaust nozzle buried within the fuselage to mask its radar and infrared signature. That’s a requirement that wasn’t in the original specifications. Combined with the ability to carry up to 600 pounds of munitions internally, such as a pair of 250-pound Small Diameter Bombs, and the Valkyrie could be very close to being a real, deployable aircraft.

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