The Navy is buying two stealth unmanned aerial systems – originally developed for the Air Force – that could operate with a manned fighter, as the service pursues the manned-unmanned teaming concept officials say is central to the future of naval aviation.
The service issued a $15.5 million contract to Kratos for the XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned aerial system, according to a Dec. 30 Defense Department contract announcement.
The UASs should have “sensor and weapon system payloads to accomplish the penetrating affordable autonomous collaborative killer” mission, according to the DoD announcement.
The Navy is currently developing its sixth-generation Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which officials have said will be a family of manned and unmanned systems, with a manned fighter currently known as F/A-XX operating as the centerpiece. The Navy plans to employ the systems in what it calls a manned-unmanned teaming concept.
Naval Air Systems Command did not immediately respond to USNI News when asked for more information about the XQ-58A contract and how it fits in with NGAD development.
Navy officials have provided few details about NGAD’s development and have kept the research and development costs classified for the last three budget cycles.
“The NGAD [family of systems] will replace the F/A-18E/F Block II aircraft as they begin to reach end of service life in the 2030s and leverage Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) in order to provide increased lethality and survivability,” according to joint testimony that Department of Navy acquisition officials gave to Congress earlier this year. “F/A-XX is the strike fighter component of the NGAD FoS that will be the ‘Quarterback’ of the MUM-T concept, directing multiple tactical platforms at the leading edge of the battlespace.”
A U.S. Air Force test squadron already has XQ-58A aircraft to experiment with and the service could pursue a program that would employ UASs with manned fighters, Breaking Defense reported in November. The “loyal wingman” is key to the development of the Air Force’s next-generation fighter. The idea is that the UAS would act as an adjunct payload capability to the manned fighters.
“The Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie is an experimental stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle designed and built by Kratos for the United States Air Force Low-Cost Attritable Strike Demonstrator program, under the USAF Research Laboratory’s Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) project portfolio,” according to the KRATOS website.
“The LCAAT portfolio was established to break the escalating cost trajectory of tactically relevant aircraft and provide an unmanned escort or wingman aircraft alongside a crewed fighter aircraft in combat.”
In addition to operating from land, Kratos has developed a version of the drone that can be transported in a standard shipping container.