Navy Buys XQ-58A Valkyries For Secretive ‘Killer’ Drone Project
Navy XQ-58As loaded with sensors and weapons will help demonstrate autonomous drone capabilities able to penetrate enemy air defenses.
The U.S. Navy is set to become the newest operator of Kratos' XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, at least that we know about. The service recently awarded the company a contract for the purchase of two of these stealthy low-cost uncrewed aircraft as part of a previously unknown program called the Penetrating Affordable Autonomous Collaborative Killer. The U.S. Air Force, the only currently known user of the XQ-58A, has been using its Valkyries for various test purposes, including projects that are feeding into the classified Collaborative Combat Aircraft program.
The Pentagon announced that the Navy had finalized a deal to buy the pair of XQ-58As in a daily contracting notice on December 30, 2022. The contract, which came through Naval Air Systems Command's (NAVAIR) Naval Air Warfare Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) and is valued at $15,515,343, covers the production and delivery of the drones, as well as unspecified "sensor and weapon system payloads."
The uncrewed aircraft will be used to "accomplish the penetrating affordable autonomous collaborative killer – portfolio objectives," according to the notice. This will include "non-recurring engineering [services], system/subsystem integration, installation, testing, ground and flight operations, logistics, and maintenance for the UAS as well as government-owned, contractor-operated operations for flight test and demonstration events at government test ranges," it continues. This work is supposed to be completed within the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30.
The contract notice does not say whether or not the XQ-58As in question will be improved Block 2 versions, which are capable of flying longer duration sorties at higher altitudes with heavier payloads than earlier examples. The exact performance capabilities of both types are unclear, but Kratos' website says the Valkyrie can fly as high as 45,000 feet above sea level and has a maximum range of 3,000 miles. This would all be dependent on the drone's total weight, which the company says can be up to 6,000 pounds. The XQ-58A has a modular, open-architecture design intended to allow for the rapid integration of various sensors and other systems, and has a demonstrated ability to deploy stores from a ventral internal bay.
XQ-58As take off via a rocket-assisted method using a static launcher and return to the ground via parachute at the end of a sortie. This makes the drones completely runway-independent. Kratos has long touted the Valkyrie, whatever its configuration might be, as a readily deployable platform with overall limited infrastructure requirements, and has even shown a containerized launcher concept in the past.
No other details appear to be readily available about the Navy's Penetrating Affordable Autonomous Collaborative Killer portfolio, which does not appear to have been disclosed before, or the service's exact plans for its XQ-58s. The War Zone has reached out to both NAVAIR and Kratos for more information.
The Pentagon's contracting notice does say that the Navy exercised its authority under Section 4023 of Title 10 of the United States Code, which specifically applies to the procurement of various items expressly for experimental purposes, to award this deal directly to Kratos without the need for a competition of any kind.
The "Penetrating Affordable Autonomous Collaborative Killer" description and the mention of both sensors and "sensor and weapon system payloads" do give strong hints as to the Navy's core objectives. This all points to a plan to develop one or more stealthy uncrewed platforms capable of penetrating through hostile air defenses and operating with high degrees of autonomy, potentially as a networked swarm, collaboratively with crewed platforms to perform various missions. This could include acting as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) or communications nodes – in both cases possibly as part of a mesh network concept – or acting as electronic warfare nodes or otherwise directly engaging enemy threats in the air or on the ground, among other things.
The Air Force has used many similar, if not identical terms to describe its goals with regard to the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program. In addition, CCA is part of the Air Force's larger Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative. Beyond new drones, NGAD includes the development of a sixth-generation crewed combat aircraft and various other projects, such as work on new and advanced sensors, networking and battle management suites, weapon systems, next-generation jet engines, and more, as you can read more about here.
The Navy has its own separate NGAD program, which is classified, but is known to be similar in many respects to its Air Force counterpart, including work on a sixth-generation combat aircraft currently referred to as F/A-XX. Navy officials have also said in the past that 50 percent or more of the aircraft in future carrier air wings could be uncrewed. As such, it is very possible, if not probable that NAVAIR's purchase of the two XQ-58As could be tied to a CCA-like subcomponent of the service's NGAD effort.
Since 2019, the Air Force has used its XQ-58As to support work on advanced autonomous capabilities, communications and data sharing suites, and other systems that might find their way into future drones, including whatever the service might acquire under the CCA program, as well as crewed platforms. In November 2022, the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida announced that two Valkyries had joined its 40th Flight Test Squadron specifically to help support testing related to autonomous capabilities.
The service's decision to retire its first XQ-58A, which had completed just three flights in its career, and send it to a museum in 2021, also highlighted the low-cost focus of its design. At the time, an Air Force spokesperson told Aviation Week that the drone was never intended to receive “extensive upgrades or repairs."
The Valkyrie's exact current unit cost is unclear. Data Kratos released last year indicated that the individual price point would be around $4 million if 50 were produced annually, but the company has said in the past that could possibly get it below $2 million for production runs of 100 airframes or more.
With all this in mind, the Navy's two XQ-58As could provide similarly valuable test support, which could further leverage the Air Force's existing experience with the type. Autonomy technology maintained by the Navy has been used in various advanced U.S. military drone development efforts. The service already has a long history of working directly on crewed-uncrewed teaming concepts, including testing involving a Kratos UTAP-22 Mako drone flying linked together with a U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jump jet all the way back in 2015.
Beyond all this, while the service might not foresee these particular drones eventually transitioning into an operational role, they would still offer a valuable stepping stone to such a capability, too, which could come in the form of further Valkyries or improved derivatives thereof.
Of course, other major U.S. defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, Boeing, and Raytheon, have also recently laid out visions for future uncrewed platforms and technologies to support improved levels of autonomy and advanced crewed-uncrewed teaming concepts. Much of this work appears aimed, at least in part, at meeting the Air Force's still-evolving CCA requirements. However, much of this would also be applicable to any similar Navy projects, such as the Penetrating Affordable Autonomous Collaborative Killer portfolio.
What is clear is that the U.S. military, broadly, increasingly views large numbers of advanced, but still relatively cheap drones with high degrees of autonomy capable of working with other crewed and uncrewed aircraft as critical components of future American airpower. This viewpoint is particularly pronounced when it comes to planning for future higher-end conflicts, especially against potential near-peer adversaries, such as China or Russia. For example, think tanks and other organizations working under contract with the U.S. government and independently have consistently shown that highly autonomous swarms with mixtures of XQ-58-sized and smaller drones could be game-changing in a scenario involving an American response to a Chinese military intervention against Taiwan, as you can learn more about here.
A number of possible opponents, especially China's state-run aviation industries, which have made major strides in the development and fielding of advanced uncrewed aircraft and autonomous technologies in recent years, and many U.S. allies and partners appear, by all indications, have come to similar conclusions.
With this in mind, it is interesting to note that Kratos said in November 2022 that it was expecting XQ-58A orders from two new customers, one of which has now turned out to be the U.S. Navy. The other remains undisclosed. The company said at that time it was in talks with another unnamed "potential fourth new customer, also from multiple Valkyrie systems."
So, while details about what the Navy will do with its forthcoming XQ-58As are not entirely clear, the purchase of these drones is still a significant development with regard to the Navy's vision for an increasingly uncrewed future, as well as Kratos' position in this ever-expanding and potentially hugely lucrative market space.
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