Air Force's Secretive XQ-58A Valkyrie Experimental Combat Drone Emerges After First Flight

The QX-58 may lead to a whole new class of highly-flexible and affordable unmanned combat air vehicles that could revolutionize how the USAF fights.

USAF

Just a week after Boeing unveiled their export-centric 'loyal wingman' combat drone concept, the Air Force Research Lab has announced that their own similar endeavor, dubbed the XQ-58A Valkyrie, has made its first flight. It also posted the very first image of the aircraft that has been developed under a veil of secrecy over the last two and half years. 

A press release from the USAF about the aircraft's first flight reads:

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. The Air Force Research Laboratory partnered with Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems to develop the XQ-58A.

This joint effort falls within the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) portfolio, which has the objective to break the escalating cost trajectory of tactically relevant aircraft. 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.

Developed for runway independence, the aircraft behaved as expected and completed 76 minutes of flight time. 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.

“XQ-58A is the first example of a class of UAV that is defined by low procurement and operating costs while providing game changing combat capability,” said Doug Szczublewski, AFRL’s XQ-58A Program Manager.

XQ-58A in flight
USAF

Beyond finally breaking cover as the USAF's 'attritable' unmanned combat air vehicle concept, the XQ-58A is really the first Air Force UCAV concept we have seen since all the momentum towards fielding any sort of this type of hugely promising aircraft suddenly dematerialized the better part of a decade ago. The XQ-58A very likely represents the low-end on the USAF's shadowy UCAV programs.

Kratos Defense

The XQ-58A looks almost identical to its manufacturer's XQ-222 concept that led to this experimental vehicle.

It is hoped that the XQ-58A will provide a low cost surveillance, strike, and electronic warfare support capability that can be operated independently, as a cooperative swarm, or as part of a so called 'loyal wingman' concept of operations a group of Q-58s would work under the command of a nearby manned combat aircraft. The stealthy drone, which supposedly has a range of well over 2,000 miles and is capable of carrying a pair of Small Diameter Bombs or electronic warfare and surveillance gear, is also capable of being launched using rocket boosters instead of relying on runways alone. 

Kratos Defense, the drone's manufacturer that is best known for its catalog of highly respected target drones, and the AFRL have always envisioned the XQ-58, above all else, as being a disruptor when it comes to cost. We described this in an earlier piece on the program:

LCASD aims to be able to eventually field a optionally reusable, highly adaptable, low-end unmanned combat air vehicle for $3 million apiece for batches of up to 99 aircraft per year, or $2 million each for yearly orders of 100 or more. In essence, the LCASD concept is “high-volume” both in the strategy behind it and in terms of procuring it affordably.

USAF

Keep in mind that the prices you are seeing in that quote are more aligned with advanced cruise missiles, not highly adaptable stealthy drones that can be reused many times. If the experimental program morphs into an operational one supported by full-rate production, the Q-58 has the potential to drastically expanding the Air Force's combat punch and flexibility for a relatively modest price. 

The fact that it can be operated from places where a big pristine runway isn't available also fits in perfectly with the Pentagon's need to be able to fight a peer state in a highly dispersed combat environment where infrastructure may be all but non-existent. The range on these drones also allows for a relatively low-cost and unpredictable option for piercing the enemy's anti-access/area-denial bubble, something fighters that are notoriously dependent on vulnerable aerial tanker aircraft will have an increasingly hard time doing

So yes, the XQ-58A is truly an exciting X-plane that could change the way the Air Force fights in the very near future. And considering that foreign powers, both friendly and unfriendly, are rapidly working to field their own stealthy long-range combat air vehicle systems, the appearance of the XQ-58 couldn't have come soon enough. 

But once again, this aircraft likely represents the low-end of the USAF's UCAV initiatives—the tip of a largely invisible iceberg. 

At least we can only hope so.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com