This tactical possibility is no longer a notion for the distant future. It is here. Perhaps the most visible example of this emerging technology can be found with the fast-progressing Air Force Research Laboratory’s XQ-58A stealth drone called Valkyrie.
The idea, in development for many years now, is intended to expand the mission envelope for aircraft by providing the ability to operate forward-moving mission drones to conduct advanced reconnaissance, test enemy air defenses or even deliver weapons all while manned fighters operate at a safer stand-off distance.
The fast-approaching technology circumvents the need to send drone feeds through a ground control station, thereby reducing latency and massively enhancing mission immediacy for air attacks.
Following a short technical glitch with the radome system, reported as “not too extensive” by AFRL developers, the Valkyrie will again take flight in the next several months, returning full force to its flight test and experimentation plan.
“The intent is to continue to experiment to support missions we can’t do today, utilizing a system like this which is cutting edge. It is a whole new class of vehicle to exercise expanded mission capabilities,” Mr. Chris Ristich, Transformational Capabilities Office Director and Director of Strategic Development Planning & Experimentation, told reporters at an Air Force Research Laboratory media event during the 2020 Air Force Association’s annual Conference.
The Valkyrie, which is part of AFRLs Low Cost attributable Aircraft Technology, took its first flight First March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. While there have been more flights since this time, Air Force reports of the inaugural flight stated “developed for runway independence, the aircraft behaved as expected and completed 76 minutes of flight time.”
The current developmental trajectory with the Valkyrie aligns with the broader AFRL strategic vision which, according to AFRL Commander Brigadier General Heather Pringle, seeks to quickly integrate promising new systems into the operational force. Speaking to reporters at AFA, she described it as an effort to “look ahead at what’s next across all our disciplines and further develop disruptive capabilities.”
Interestingly, Air Force reports say the stealthy-looking Valkyrie could be configured for both surveillance and attack missions. This would seem quite possible in a scenario wherein the drone’s flight path and sensor payload were operated from the cockpit of an F-22 or F-35. This would enable human decision-makers to operate in a command and control capacity to direct lethal operations. Available data says the twenty-eight-foot long Valkyrie can reach speeds as fast as 650 mph and attack with JDAMs (precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions) or even a Small Diameter Bomb.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.