One of the U.S. Air Force’s XQ-58A Valkyrie stealthy, affordable unmanned aircraft has, for the first time, released a store from its internal payload bay. The latest test flight, the sixth for the Valkyrie, saw the payload bay doors open for the first time in flight, to drop one of the much smaller ALTIUS-600 drones.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) announced the milestone test today, although it took place at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground test range, Arizona, on March 26. The test was conducted by the Air Force, working together with Kratos, which produces the Valkyrie, and Area-I, responsible for the ALTIUS 600, which the Air Force describes as a small, unmanned aircraft system, or SUAS. On April 1, Anduril Industries announced it had bought Area-I, which would continue to operate under that name as a wholly-owned subsidiary.
While the release of a store from its internal payload bay was the highlight, the sixth flight of the Valkyrie included other important test points, too. The Kratos drone continued to expand its operating envelope by flying “higher and faster than previous flights,” Alyson Turri, the demonstration program manager, said, although no performance figures were provided.
“Successful operation of the internal weapons release system/function along with further aerodynamic envelope increases continues to assert the incredible capability and cost-per-performance value of the low-cost attritable XQ-58A Valkyrie,” Steve Fendley, President of Kratos Unmanned Systems Division, said. “Additionally, this unique and key mission function success adds an exclamation point to the 30-month development of the Valkyrie system by the Kratos and AFRL team, which resulted in a pre-production system with substantial operational capability, not simply a proof-of-concept flight demonstrator.”
The Valkyrie involved in the test also appears to be the third airframe completed so far, wearing the Air Force serial number 15-8003. The initial XQ-58A, serial number 15-8001, took its first flight in March 2019, but suffered a mishap later the same year while completing its third flight.
15-8001 has been used as part of the AFRL’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) program, which has served as a stepping stone to the Skyborg project, which is focused on the development of various technologies that go into semi-autonomous "loyal wingman" type unmanned aircraft and, eventually, fully autonomous unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). In December 2020, the Air Force announced that it had hired Kratos, as well as Boeing and General Atomics, to build actual prototype drones to carry the Skyborg suite of systems.
A third XQ-58A, 15-8002, has been used as a platform to explore attritable drone concepts of operation, as well as a testbed for new communications gateways to help different stealthy aircraft "talk" to each other. Attritable refers to systems that are designed to be low-cost enough that they can be employed in high-risk situations that might preclude the use of a more costly, exquisite asset. It's not clear how many XQ-58As the Air Force presently intends to acquire for its various test efforts.
A photo accompanying today’s press release also shows the ALTIUS-600 drone being ejected rearward from the bay, via what appears to be a downward-angled Common Launch Tube (CLT). Using the CLT, an increasingly popular method of launching small payloads across the U.S. military, would make good sense and suggests that the Valkyrie could also be able to launch any of the other stores that can use these tubes, including Raytheon’s AGM-176 Griffin missile, the GBU-44/B Viper Strike glide bomb, or the GBU-69/B Small Glide Munition (SGM).
It's unclear how many tube-launched ALTIUS-600s the XQ-58A might be able to hold inside its internal bay. The Valkyrie has previously been said to be able to carry at least two 250-pound class GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs (SDB), but it may actually be able to carry up to four of those weapons.
As for the specific store used in this first test of Valkyrie’s payload launch capability, the choice of the ALTIUS-600 demonstrates the goal of having the XQ-58A be able to launch smaller drones, as opposed to weapons, for the time being, at least. The ALTIUS-600 — or Air-Launched, Tube-Integrated, Unmanned System 600 — has been launched from U.S. Army MQ-1C unmanned aircraft, as well as UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, in various tests in recent years.
Weighing less than 30 pounds, the ALTIUS 600 can itself carry various types of payloads weight between three and seven pounds, including full-motion video cameras, small signals intelligence systems, or even a kinetic warhead. The same SUAS could also be a candidate for the Army’s new family of air-launched multi-purpose unmanned aircraft with swarming capabilities, which you can read more about here.
On the Air Force side, the latest experiment combining the Valkyrie with the ALTIUS 600 parallels General Atomics’ work with its Sparrowhawk small drone, which was used in captive carry tests aboard an MQ-9 Reaper drone last September. Unlike the ALTIUS 600, the Sparrowhawk was not launched from the Reaper, but it also differs in that it is intended to be recoverable in flight.
Sparrowhawk is also significantly larger than the ALTIUS 600, which, in terms of size, has more in common with the Raytheon Coyote. The coyote drone is similarly designed for launch from the CLT and has so far been delivered from manned aircraft, but there is no apparent reason why they couldn’t also be launched from drones like the Valkyrie, too.
It's also worth noting that the Pentagon recently announced the completion of the Low-Cost Cruise Missile (LCCM) research and development program that involved the Coyote Block 3 version, together with an associated launcher, a jam-resistant datalink, and a software package intended to enable these drones to operate as an autonomous swarm. This work conducted as part of that project has now been provided, in various parts, to the Air Force, as well as the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, to help with other ongoing efforts
While the potential mission spectrum of the Valkyrie, or its evolved successors, encompasses electronic warfare, or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), either in groups of loyal wingmen operating with manned aircraft or in networked autonomous swarms, the ability to launch drones itself opens up new possibilities.
As already noted, the Valkyrie was designed from the outset to be a low-cost drone that could be operated in scenarios from which it wouldn’t necessarily return. Giving it the capability to launch even less expensive drones, in turn, could not only increase the effects delivered by the XQ-58A, but also boost its own survivability.
What is more, the small size of the ALTIUS 600 would allow a Valkyrie or a small team of them, to leverage support from a proportionally much larger swarm of SUAS drones, either working cooperatively with each other autonomously or collaboratively with the Valkyries.
As well as explosive charges to attack ground targets, other possible payloads for the ALTIUS could include different types of sensors, which could, for example, enable an ISR-tasked Valkyrie to dramatically increase its surveillance coverage during its mission. For self-protection, or to overwhelm hostile air defenses during an offensive operation, the ALTIUS 600s could work as stand-in jammers by packing electronic warfare payloads or act as decoys, thereby protecting not only their Valkyrie launch platform but also friendly manned aircraft or cruise missiles in the vicinity as part of a larger coordinated operation.
Indeed, the Valkyrie now seems well placed to deploy lower-tier swarms as part of wider aspirations across the entire U.S. military to field this kind of capability. In this way, the Valkyrie could exist in a gray area between non-expendable (including manned) platforms and expendable platforms, delivering multiple SUAS-type drones into harm’s way. These could then prosecute networked missions, including attacks, using the kind of capabilities that are being demonstrated as part of the Golden Horde flight tests, which began late last year.
With the air launching of the ALTIUS 600, the latest in a series of boundary-pushing tests that could help shape the way air combat is conducted for many years to come, the Valkyrie's adaptability is looking ever more attractive. No doubt, it will be fascinating to see how the drone-launched drone concept, in particular, develops from here.
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