The F-35’s Partner in Crime: The U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg Program Just Got a Big Boost

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October 3, 2020 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Air ForceMilitaryTechnologyJetsF-35SkyBorg

The F-35’s Partner in Crime: The U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg Program Just Got a Big Boost

The Air Force now has a whopping thirteen companies competing for aircraft contracts worth up to $400 million.

In a release on its website, the United States Air Force Life Cycle Management Center announced that it had issued the second phase of awards for its Skyborg program. The list of awardees is enormous.

The Air Force stated that this next round of awards adds a healthy mix of aerospace heavyweights as well as a few lesser-known companies and academic institutions, including AeroVironment Inc., Autodyne LLC,  BAE System Controls Inc., Blue Force Technologies Inc., Fregata System Inc., Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, NextGen Aeronautics Inc., Sierra Technical Services, and Wichita State University.

Previously, the Air Force had also awarded indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contracts to The Boeing Co., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems Inc., and Northrop Grumman Systems Corp.

The Air Force press release stated that in total, “13 vendors will now compete for up to $400 million in subsequent delivery orders in support of the Skyborg Vanguard Program.” But what is the Skyborg program?

Flying Skyborgs

In essence, the Skyborg program is an “autonomy-focused capability that will enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments.” Think smart drones.

These drones, operating autonomously in contested environments, will be able to detect threats to themselves and manned airframes on the ground and in the air, evaluate the danger, and find solutions to striking or otherwise avoiding threats. Skyborg drones will essentially act as information gathering nodes that relay information to human pilots in order to increase the pilot’s combat survivability.

This video released by the Air Force Research Laboratory explains the program in greater detail and is worth the ninety seconds it takes to watch. 

Recent Progress

As of now, two of the thirteen companies that were awarded contracts have shown what they’ve come up with. Last year, Kratos’ XQ-58A Valkyrie made its first flight debut. The design has a number of stealth features, including a stealthy fuselage and nose design, as well as a serpentine air intake inlet that masks the Valkyrie’s engine fan blades.

The relatively light-weight drone tips the scale at about 2,500 pounds. Though it is ultimately intended to accompany stealthy fighters like the F-35 and F-22, it remains to be seen how the platform would keep up in its current configuration. Kratos lists its cruise speed as Mach .72, whereas the F-35 and F-22 cruise over twice as fast at around Mach 1.5. Progress in this area is still needed.

Less is known about Boeing’s Loyal Wingman prototype. Boeing’s Australian division developed the prototype, which is expected to make its first flight sometime this year. Based on images the company released, the Loyal Wingman seems to be outwardly similar to Kratos’ Valkyrie, with a stealthy-looking chined fuselage and V-tail, though rather than a single back-mount air intake, the Loyal Wingman has intakes on either side of the airframe.


Much progress is still to be done before the Skyborg program is complete. But, with thirteen horses now in the race, there will likely be many new designs to look at. Watch this topic closely for further future updates.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

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