Man-machine synergies enabling manned-unmanned operational teaming is practically a reality, so the Pentagon and military services are taking new steps into the highly impactful yet less developed universe of unmanned-unmanned teaming. Drones launching drones.
The next step in the Air Force’s now fast evolving loyal wingman program, wherein manned fighter jets operate nearby drones from the cockpit, appears to involve the use of drones and unmanned systems to launch and operate drones themselves.
A successful Air Force Research Laboratory experiment earlier this year showed how the service’s emerging Valkyrie drone launched a Kratos-built ALTIUS-600 mini-drone from its internal weapons bay. The Valkyrie continued to complete additional test points and fly higher and faster than during previous flights, an Air Force report states.
The Valkyrie has also flown alongside F-22 jets and F-35 jets as part of its technological trajectory heading toward its anticipated loyal wingman mission.
Last December, Valkyrie flew with a fifth-generation aircraft as part of the Advanced Battle Management System overarching program. And just recently, we had the project Red Fox, where it was able to deploy a smaller UAS from the Valkyrie payload bay. And that was a really exciting event for our scientists and technologists, to have that. So the program continues to mature from there, and we’re looking forward to the future, Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, Commander, Air Force Research Laboratory, recently told reporters.
The Valkyrie has a twenty-eight-foot long wingspan, can reach speeds as fast as 650 miles per hour and attack with precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions or even a Small Diameter Bomb.
Launching drones from the cockpit of a manned fifth-generation stealth jet, and conducting mini-drone attacks from Valkyrie drones themselves, introduces a new sphere of tactical possibilities. Naturally, it enables much greater stand-off distances for manned platforms conducting reconnaissance missions in high threat areas. Drones can test enemy air defenses, blanket areas with networked surveillance and even, if directed by a human, fire weapons or function themselves as weapons. An ability to send real-time video and surveillance data directly into a fighter jet cockpit, without needing to send images through a ground-based control station, massively reduces latency and therefore greatly expedites the decision-making process in war.
Unmanned-unmanned wherein a drone such as a Valkyrie could be programmed to launch mini attack drones at even greater standoff ranges, perhaps keeping the Valkyrie from being destroyed by enemy fire. Mini-drones, if networked to larger ones, can in effect construct a layered kind of mesh network extending targeting reach and combat scope.
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.
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