Marine XQ-58 Valkyries Will Be Electronic Warfare Platforms For F-35s

Kratos says its stealthy XQ-58A drones cost $6.5M each with dozens now under contract and two other secret aircraft programs underway.

byThomas Newdick, Tyler Rogoway|
Valkyrie Marines F-35


Kratos has provided an update on its stealthy XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, including a new unit cost for its flagship tactical product and details of expanding U.S. Marine Corps activities involving the drone, which seem to be centered upon electronic warfare. The company has also disclosed the existence of a new and previously secret drone project, known as Dark Fury, as well as another mysterious new, unnamed drone that is already undergoing flight testing.

The remarks about these programs were made by Eric DeMarco, the president and CEO of Kratos Defense & Security Solutions during a quarterly company earnings call this week.

An XQ-58A Valkyrie flies alongside F-35A and F-22A stealth fighters. USAF

Not surprisingly, developments in the XQ-58A Valkyrie program were at the center of the discussion, DeMarco noting that the company’s tactical jet drones flying today “are recognized as the most capable and affordable in their class.”

Overall, and despite its low-cost attributes, the Valkyrie is at the upper end of the Kratos portfolio. DeMarco quoted the unit price of around $6.5 million, compared with the approximate $450,000 unit cost for the Air Wolf, a tactical drone that’s based on the same company’s smallest airborne target offering, the Firejet.

The first official image of Air Wolf released by Kratos. Kratos

DeMarco added that the $6.5-million unit cost is based on the current low-quantity production run, although Kratos has an overall production rate of approximately 150 jet drone aircraft annually. Data Kratos released last year indicated that the unit cost of a Valkyrie would be around $4 million if 50 of the drones 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.

The first Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, serial number 15-8001. U.S. Air Force

As to current Valkyrie production, the company is now in the process of completing the first serial production run of 12 Block 1 XQ-58A drones at its Oklahoma City facility, and work has begun on the second production run of 12 Block 2 drones, DeMarco confirmed. In addition, there were at least three prototypes completed for the Air Force, the first of which has now been retired to a museum.

Compared to the earlier examples, the Block 2 Valkyries are capable of flying longer-duration sorties at higher altitudes with heavier payloads. More changes are on the way, however, in the Block 2 B version. “It now looks like at least half of the Block 2s will be Block 2Bs incorporating a new additional capability based on very recent specific customer input,” DeMarco said, without providing more details of the changes involved.

The Valkyrie was rapidly developed by Kratos Ghost Works, the company stating that the path from a “clean sheet of paper” to a successful first flight took just 30 months. This, DeMarco said, gives Kratos a head-start over potential competitors in the same space, with other companies likely to need “at least three years to four years” before a first flight and at “who knows what cost to the customer.”

While the U.S. Air Force is already busy testing the Valkyrie, with projects including serving as a datalink between an F-22 and F-35, and even as a launch platform for smaller drones using its weapon bay, DeMarco took the opportunity to provide more details of the Marine Corps’ plans for the drone. Over and above this, the arrival last year of two of the drones at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, to join the resident test wing, is set to open a new period of autonomous aircraft testing at the installation, something we have discussed in the past.

An XQ-58A deploying an ALTIUS-600 UAV from a Common Launch Tube. U.S. Air Force

“Since our last report, it was reported that one mission the Marine Corps’ Valkyries are focusing on includes electronic warfare effects in conjunction with the F-35 [to] strengthen the assault support platforms all under the Penetrating Affordable Autonomous Collaborative Killer program.”

The Penetrating Affordable Autonomous Collaborative Killer program only came to light late last year when the Navy announced it was buying two Valkyries. It subsequently emerged that these would actually be headed to the Marine Corps, which is an independent service within the Department of the Navy.

Video thumbnail

Pairing Valkyrie with USMC F-35s is outright logical and directly supports the Marines' high-priority work to be able to operate far forward, from austere locations, in a flexible and constantly morphing manner. This is referred to as Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO).

Kratos' stealthy drone is designed to be runway independent, launching with a booster from a stand and recovered via parachute. This means it can operate where no airfield is present, or at least not a big and well-established one.

The 40th Flight Test Squadron's XQ-58A at the moment of launch on December 15, 2022. USAF

Pairing this capability with F-35Bs and F-35Cs that are capable of short field operations — the F-35B especially so — provides a massive leap in capability without ballooning the footprint or infrastructure needs of forward-based Marine air combat forces. You can read all about the playbook being written for EABO F-35B operations in this exclusive feature of ours.

A Valkyrie on its way down after a mission. (USAF)

The electronic warfare angle makes great sense, as well, as we know enhancements to the F-35's electronic warfare system are an absolute top want by the services. Using a collaborative drone as an associated electronic warfare platform opens up a huge book of new potential tactics and capabilities that will help F-35s survive inside the enemy's air defense umbrella. The Valkyrie can also launch its own stand-in jammer drones and weapons, and can operate far forward of manned assets even as a decoy. It's possible that its weapons bay could be converted to fuel and electronic warfare systems, as well.

We also know that XQ-58s have been equipped for tests with the F-35's Multi-Function Data-Link (MADL) which is highly directional and very hard to jam or intercept, so connecting the two seamlessly, just as F-35s are connected, should not be an issue. Even having the drones just relay critical MADL data forward or back over the battlefield in a 'daisy chain manner' would be a big advantage for F-35-Valkyrie ops. It would also allow a more resilient data flow, especially in an electronic warfare heavy combat environment and one in which space communications assets will be at risk.

F-35Bs have the ability to work from very short and increasingly narrow operating areas, which makes them a great pairing with the Q-58. (James DeBoer)

Of course, the EW focus could just be the start for USMC XQ-58 and F-35 cooperative operations, and surely other roles will be added and Kratos may already be in the process of doing so. DeMarco confirmed that the Kratos has also recently received an additional Marine Corps Valkyrie contract award “related to sensor payloads, mission system, and subsystem integration, and Kratos is also now under a customer-funded contract related to the Valkyrie for the development and testing of autonomy and pilot vehicle interfaces, ground and flight operations and additional Valkyrie test flight related events.”

It’s worth noting that we don’t know exactly what Block version of the Valkyrie the Marine Corps will receive, but it may not be coincidental that De Marco mentioned “a new additional capability” for the Block 2Bs, based on a particular, undisclosed customer requirement.

Between them, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are increasingly looking at the potential offered by high-performance jet drones, like the Valkyrie, with the Navy in particular now envisioning a future carrier air wing that could consist of up to 60 percent drones. This is something The War Zone explored in depth in this recent story.

Artwork depicting an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter flying together with multiple types of drones. Lockheed Martin Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

The Air Force, of course, is already planning on fielding a new breed of advanced drones, notably under the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, and is seeking uncrewed aircraft with high degrees of autonomy to work closely together with crewed platforms, initially primarily in air-to-air combat roles. This is part of the broader Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative, which also includes a new sixth-generation stealthy combat jet and various other advanced systems, among them new weapons, sensors, networking and battle management suites, advanced jet engines, and more. There are also increasing signs of cooperation between the Air Force and Navy cooperation on CCA, something that is also seemingly paralleled in their respective NGAD programs.

In the drone area, DeMarco notes that the Air Force has requested approximately $6 billion over the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) and that the service ultimately plans to “procure up to 2,000 drone systems” as an essential part of its modernization drive. Recently, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall disclosed that, for planning purposes, the service is looking at initial fleets of 1,000 CCAs and 200 NGAD combat jets. The 1,000 CCA figure is based on an expected ratio of two of those drones to each of the 200 NGAD combat jets and 300 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters. Kendall has already said that the number of CCAs could be much more, too, which may bring the total more in line with DeMarco’s projection.

A capture from a Lockheed Martin presentation showing an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter operating alongside advanced drones. Lockheed Martin

Whatever the numbers ultimately involved, Kratos clearly sees plenty of potential for new contracts here, especially as it positions itself as a provider of lower-cost drones. DeMarco noted that the Air Force is looking to spend “approximately $20 million” for each new advanced drone, as a means of achieving affordable combat “mass.” This latter point is certainly something of increasing importance in related airpower discussions, seemingly superseding previous aspirations for “attritable” drones, and is something we have also examined in detail in the past.

DeMarco briefly provided his vision of how advanced uncrewed aircraft could eventually fit into the Air Force order of battle, painting a picture of “high-performance jet drones with augmented autonomy or if you will, artificial intelligence that can carry weapons, that can do SEAD [suppression of enemy air defenses], that can do DEAD [destruction of enemy air defenses], some of them they can do electronic attack — all types of missions.”

Even the existing Valkyrie would seem to have significant potential in scenarios like these, where it would benefit from its payload bay, its runway independence (providing extra flexibility around enemy defenses, for example), as well as the potential value of drones in supporting SEAD/DEAD missions, in general. DeMarco’s mention of electronic attack here is interesting, too, especially as this is a role that the Marines are apparently interested in for the Valkyrie. At millions of dollars each, not tens of millions, even sacrificing a Valkyrie to achieve broader goals on the battlefield could be well within reason. Some standoff missiles cost more, especially hypersonic ones.

Boeing concept art that the U.S. Air Force has used in the past as an example of notional future attritable drones designed to work closely together with crewed aircraft. Boeing

DeMarco also mentioned “additional tactical drone contract awards,” including some that are related to the Valkyrie, as well as ongoing negotiations for additional contract awards, which the company expects to receive “in the coming months.” No details of customers, or potential customers were provided, although DeMarco did mention that Kratos is “a prime [contractor] with another customer we haven’t talked about.”

An XQ-58A Valkyrie launches at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in 2020. U.S. Air Force/SSgt. Joshua King

Outside of the well-known Valkyrie program, Kratos is also working on more secretive drones including a “new yet-to-be-disclosed system that Kratos’ Ghost Works is focused on and that the competition and others know nothing about.” DeMarco said that this mysterious drone is already undergoing flight test at the company’s Burns Flat range facility, also in Oklahoma.

“Just this week Kratos had a very successful test event at the Burns Flat Test Range with the new system, which I am confident that neither our competition nor adversaries are aware of in any way,” DeMarco added.

It’s possible that the unnamed drone could even be in production already. DeMarco referred to three systems now being in production in Oklahoma, but he could only mention two of these: Valkyrie and Firejet. He went on to mention “another program we have that we don’t talk about, and I cannot talk about that is going into full-rate production now,” which could be a reference to the same vehicle.

Another new drone program that Kratos did name in the earnings call is the internally funded Dark Fury, with a vehicle scheduled for flight next year. No more details were provided, but Kratos does have a long history of work on classified uncrewed aircraft projects. At the same time, statements from DeMarco did at least make it clear that this is a separate effort from the Air Force’s secretive Mayhem program, in which Kratos is also involved.

Mayhem involves an experimental design to demonstrate an ability to carry various payloads to support strike and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, and could eventually lead to an operational platform.

A Leidos rendering showing how a Mayhem experimental vehicle might look. Leidos

According to a press release from Kratos at the time, the company, in partnership with Leidos, “will serve as a member of the System Design Agent (SDA) team for the Mayhem program, which also includes Calspan and Draper. The SDA’s goal is to design a system that allows rapid relevant technology insertions utilizing the expertise and capabilities of a variety of industry partners. The role of the SDA for this program will also include bringing the best of industry together to perform research and development necessary for the production of air-breathing multi-mission hypersonic system prototypes. The SDA will oversee designs, prototypes, and tests to ultimately produce and deliver a technical data package for high-performance, relevant hypersonic weapon systems.”

A $334-million R&D contract for Mayhem was awarded to Leidos last year and Kratos is known to be one of the companies with which this firm has teamed up on the program.

The technical description of the Mayhem program provided in a contracting document released by the Air Force Research Laboratory in December 2021. U.S. Air Force

Aside from that, Kratos is also one of the beneficiaries of a $400-million ceiling indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) Air Force research and development contract. DeMarco described this as having a primary objective “to conduct research towards the development, demonstration, integration, and transition of new aerospace vehicle technologies, designs, and integrated systems that will provide advanced capabilities to the Department of the Air Force.”

With its Valkyrie, Kratos has already stolen a lead on rapidly building and flying advanced tactical jet drones, including ones with stealth characteristics. As the Valkyrie now also garners interest from services beyond the Air Force, the company appears to be well positioned for whatever comes next, both in terms of domestic programs and from potential overseas customers.

With very few details of the Dark Fury drone, let alone the more secretive unnamed drone that is now under test, these are undoubtedly exciting times within Kratos and within the uncrewed aircraft realm more generally.