The U.S. Air Force in early March 2019 revealed a prototype for stealthy wingman drone that could accompany manned warplanes into combat.
The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, built by California-based Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, flew for the first time over Yuma, Arizona on March 5, 2019, the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio announced.
The XQ-58's first flight signals an expansion of international efforts to develop unmanned aerial vehicles that can fly and fight in mixed formations with traditional, manned warplanes.
Boeing's Australian subsidiary on Feb. 27, 2019 unveiled its so-called "Airpower Teaming System," a 38-foot-long, jet-powered drone that Boeing said could carry weapons and sensors and fly as far as 2,000 miles—all while being more affordable than a $100-million manned jet.
Boeing developed the new drone in cooperation with the Australian military. After further development, the Royal Australian Air Force could acquire the UAV to quickly and cheaply add firepower to its roughly 100-strong fighter fleet and six E-7 radar planes.
"The Boeing Airpower Teaming System is designed to team with a wide range of existing military aircraft from fighters to commercial derivative aircraft," said Ashlee Erwin, a Boeing spokesperson.
"The idea of a robot wingman is that it can keep pace with manned planes, but be tasked out for parts of the mission that you wouldn't send a human teammate to do," Peter W. Singer, author of Wired for War, told The Daily Beast.
Beside Australia, China and Japan also are working on wingman drones. A mock-up or prototype of China's 30-feet-long Dark Sword drone first appeared in public in an undated photo that circulated on-line in mid-2018.
Japan revealed its own "Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft" wingman drone concept in a technology roadmap that Aviation Week first published in late 2016.
Kratos's 28-feet-long XQ-58 is similar to the Boeing Airpower Teaming System UAV in size, shape and concept. AFRL and Kratos are developing the Valkyrie drone under the auspices of the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology program.
The XQ-58 program aims to “break the escalating cost trajectory of tactically-relevant aircraft,” AFRL stated. “The objectives of the LCAAT initiative include designing and building UAS faster by developing better design tools and maturing and leveraging commercial manufacturing processes to reduce build time and cost.”
The “runway-independent” -- that is, catapult-launched -- Valkyrie “behaved as expected and completed 76 minutes of flight time” on its first sortie, AFRL stated. “The time to first flight took a little over 2.5 years from contract award. The XQ-58A has a total of five planned test flights in two phases with objectives that include evaluating system functionality, aerodynamic performance and launch and recovery systems.”
The implications are huge for U.S. air power. "If you team up a bunch of these aircraft with an F-35 or an F-22 or some of our surveillance assets, you'd basically be able to cover more space at a lower cost point," Bill Baron, manager of the LCAA project, said at a 2017 conference.
Dan Ward, a former U.S. Air Force officer who has written several books about weapons-development, explained all the ways the Pentagon could botch the development of a potentially important new class of drone.
"The most likely way to mess this up is in the beginning of the project," Ward told The National Interest. "If the Pentagon launches a big new program with a start-from-scratch, single-step-to-capability program plan and adopts the usual spare-no-expense, take-your-time mindset ... it'll end up taking longer, costing more and doing less than promised."
"Same thing if they try to pack too much into the system and allow complexity to get out of control," Ward added. The Air Force should experiment with wingman drones, keep them cheap, keep them simple and remind itself that it's not the only country working on this kind of UAV.
Wingman drones are coming. And they could change aerial warfare for any country that acquires them.