The U.S. Air Force’s “loyal wingman” plan for piloted fighter jets to control nearby drones took a large step forward recently. On December 9, a rocket-launched Valkyrie drone took off with an F-22 and F-35 together, a maneuver laying the groundwork for the fast-approaching day when fifth-generation stealth aircraft can control groups of nearby drones from the cockpit.
Direct cockpit control not only massively reduces latency by removing the need to move data through a ground station, but also greatly expands options when it comes to air attack. Drones maneuvering with manned stealth fighter jets can extend attack range, test enemy air defenses, perform drone-to-drone information sharing or, if necessary, seek to challenge or overwhelm enemy radar without placing human pilots at risk.
“The rocket-launched Valkyrie successfully conducted a semi-autonomous flight alongside the F-22 and F-35 for the first time,” an Air Force report states. While some of the “gateway” networking between the drone and the fighters did not fully come to fruition, the flight marked a massive step forward for the Air Force’s emerging Advanced Battle Management Systems (ABMS) program which seeks to interconnect groups of otherwise separated surveillance and attack platforms. The ABMS demo during which the Valkyrie flew with the jets, however, did demonstrate some breakthrough two-way connectivity between F-22s and F-35s.
Fifth-generation fighters are typically limited to communicating with each other and to command-and-control centers via legacy tactical data connections. But these planes are not able to communicate in their native, but incompatible digital “languages”—the Multifunctional Advanced Data Link for F-35 and Intra-Flight Data Link for the F-22. In recent years, the Air Force has been working to enable two-way LINK 16 datalink connectivity between the F-22 and F-35 in a manner entirely consistent with ABMS, as typically both aircraft were not able to send and receive data from one another.
During the December 9 test, the Air Force’s gatewayONE communications technology moved data two ways directly between F-22s and F-35s—a feat that has not historically been possible. “Not only can gatewayONE translate between those formats, in this test it moved data that is normally relegated to an operations center or tactical ground node, directly pushing it into the cockpit at the edge of the multi-domain battlespace for the first time,” the Air Force report stated.
The Valkyrie, which is part of the Air Force’s Low Cost attributable Aircraft Technology, took its first flight First March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona.
The Valkyrie has a 28-foot long wingspan, can reach speeds as fast as 650 mph and attack with JDAMs (precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions) or even a Small Diameter Bomb.
Air Force officials 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.
Kris Osborn is the 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.